In Tuesday’s COVID-19 update, questions veered towards reckoning with Canada’s fraught relationship with Indigenous history as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney took issue with cancel culture.
The unmarked burial sites of 215 Indigenous children were found in Kamloops on May 27, prompting outcry over school names honouring historical figures with controversial views and policies.
When a reporter asked Kenney about how the Calgary Board of Education reverted the Langevin School name back to Riverside School earlier on Tuesday — due to Hector-Louis Langevin’s ties to the residential school system — Kenney spoke at length about Canadian history.
The premier said he wasn’t aware the school had been renamed but launched into a spiel about Canada’s first prime minister John A. Macdonald. Kenney noted he co-sponsored a bill in the House of Commons to recognize a day honouring Macdonald as a founder of Confederation, “without whom Canada would not exist.”
“I think Canada is a great historical achievement. It is a country that people all around the world seek to join as new Canadians,” he said.
“It is an imperfect country, but it is still a great country, just as John Macdonald was an imperfect man but was still a great leader. If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly and rightly in historical retrospective — but if that’s the new standard, then I think almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled.”
Throughout the question period of the press conference, Kenney listed problematic historical figures, including eugenics advocates in the Famous Five and Tommy Douglas, Wilfrid Laurier, who increased the Chinese head tax to stop immigrants from coming to Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who denied Jews fleeing the Holocaust entry into Canada, and Pierre Trudeau, who brought in martial law during the FLQ Crisis.
“If we go full force into cancel culture, then we’re cancelling most, if not all, of our history,” he said.
“Instead, I think we should learn from our history. We should learn from our achievements but also our failures,” he added, noting that Canada “is doing that,” referencing former prime minister Stephen Harper’s residential school apology and more than $3 billion in compensation from the feds to survivors.
“I think it’s much better that we learn from our history, including those periods of great injustice, without seeking to cancel our history.”
It’s important to understand “the greatness, the audacity of vision and the generosity of spirit” of former Canadian leaders, Kenney said, explaining that it’s inappropriate to focus on one or two figures who operated in a “radically different time.”
“If we want to get into a debate about cancelling Canadian history, we need to understand that it means all of our history,” he said.
“I think that that kind of destructive spirit is not really the spirit of reconciliation. The spirit of reconciliation is to learn from the wrongs of the past, to seek to remedy them while knowing our history and moving forward together.”
First Nations chief ‘appalled’
Vernon Watchmaker, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, is concerned by Kenney’s remarks and the effect they might have on people.
“We are appalled by the statements of Premier Kenney and how insensitive his comments were toward the history of Treaty First Nations,” he told Global News.
“We are grieving. I remind the premier that yesterday, there was a vigil at the legislature to show honour, respect and unity to the loss of innocent lives of First Nations children.”
Watchmaker said the country and province were “established at the cost of our lives and well-being.”
“Just when we think we are experiencing acts of reconciliation, the premier contradicts all the efforts toward an understanding.”
“The real Canadian story is that we entered into Peace and Friendship Treaty with the Crown. Sir John A. Macdonald acted inhumanly toward First Nations,” he said. “He aggressively implemented policy and legislation to assimilate our people at all costs.”
Watchmaker said he wants to work with a government that will take this seriously because Indigenous voices are not being heard by the province. There’s a difference between learning about history in school or a museum versus having a monument or school name honouring a problematic politician, he said.
“First Nations people were here already. Canada was formed on the lands of Indigenous people,” he said.
“It is very concerning to us because we believe that the history being shown — like even just last week with the findings of these young children in the mass graves is certainly a reminder.
“It is the legacy of Canada, and I believe the narrative of that history needs to be retold.”
Kenney’s comments are ‘jaw-dropping’: Notley
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said Wednesday she is disappointed in the sentiments Kenney expressed.
“I know who John A. Macdonald is, and I think that what all Albertans want to do is know more about those 215 children, and they want to know about the other children, the thousands of other children throughout this country,” she said.
Notley said she is very sorry for the many Indigenous Albertans who are struggling right now, especially having to grieve “in the face of those kinds of comments coming from the elected leader of this province.”
“I found the insensitivity of the premier’s comments yesterday utterly jaw-dropping. We know that John A. Macdonald has been associated with some dark parts of our historic past, as well as foundational parts of our history,” she said.
“For Jason Kenney to go off on some right-wing trope rant ever, of course, is not helpful, but now, it is shocking to me.”
Indigenous history and the curriculum
The Canadian history portion of the news conference then shifted to questions about Alberta’s draft curriculum, which has received backlash from experts for leaving out huge pieces of Indigenous history. Kenney said the province’s draft curriculum introduces residential schools in Grade 5.
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“Under the current Alberta curriculum, the subject of Indian residential schools is not raised until Grade 10 in the social studies curriculum, and then I believe there’s only one reference,” he said.
“The draft K-6 social studies curriculum introduces 10 separate references, including a proposed exercise for students to read aloud from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to listen to audio and video testimony of residential school survivors, to be educated about the separation of children from their families, about the denial of their language and culture, about all of those terrible aspects of the injustice of residential schools.”
Kenney said his government is proposing a “huge increase in content” over the current curriculum about residential schools.
“If there are suggestions for more age-appropriate content, this is a draft curriculum. We’re open to additional suggestions,” Kenney said, before pivoting back to cancel culture, listing former Canadian leaders with bigoted policies and beliefs.
“There is no shortage of sadness, tragedy and injustice in our past. The greatness of Canada is that we have overcome those things. Yes, we have had imperfect leaders, and yes, we have had imperfect institutions, and yet, we have still built, through that, a country that is the envy of the world.”
He said the solution lies in presenting all Canadians with a “balanced depiction of our history, including the terrible, gross injustice and tragedy of the Indian residential schools.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Tuesday that we are lucky to have the chance to impact the curriculum today.
“It is extremely clear that the proposed curriculum isn’t just. It isn’t right. It must be changed,” he said.
“If your heart was broken this week, if you are educating yourself, if you are teaching your kids, it’s also time to take political action and it’s time to reach out to the provincial government and tell them to scrap the curriculum and to start with something more respectful.”
Survivors of the residential school system can get support through Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program 24-7 crisis line by calling 1-866-925-4419.