Days after the bodies of 215 children were found at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., the Church-Wellesley Village BIA is calling on the City of Toronto to remove a statue of a man who has historical connections to the system.
“We found out information about the individual the statue is of and the information wasn’t very good. It showed his connection to an organization which had direct setting up of schools, which eventually became the residential schools in Canada,” Christopher Hudspeth, the BIA’s chair, told Global News, noting the board heard about the background on Thursday.
“Many people say that this is like erasing history, that’s not our intention, and in fact we do not want the history of this to go away. What we want to go away is the symbol of this, and removing the symbol would be good.”
The BIA released its call on Tuesday to remove the statue of Alexander Wood, which was erected in 2005 at the corner of Church and Alexander streets.
Board members outlined research gathered, in part, from the Toronto Public Library archives, that said Wood spent several years as a treasurer and a founding member of an organization called the Society for Converting and Civilizing the Indians and Propagating the Gospel Among Destitute Settlers in Upper Canada.
“The Society’s actions resulted in the St. John’s Missionary to the Ojibway 1832, which in 1873 became Shingwauk Industrial Home, a large two-story wooden structure in Sault Ste. Marie, later the Shingwauk Residential School,” the public statement said.
“These are early examples of the residential school system whose purpose was to stop Indigenous people from hunting and gathering, forcing them to take on more European conditions. These actions contributed to the cultural genocide of Indigenous people in Canada.”
Between 1831 and 1996, Canada’s residential school system separated nearly 150,000 children from their homes by force. Many were subjected to abuse, rape and malnutrition in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015 called “cultural genocide.”
Run by the government and church groups, most of which were Catholic, the schools’ stated aim was to assimilate Indigenous children.
According to TRC reports, the students of these residential schools were often subject to physical and sexual abuse by staff. They were malnourished, underfed, and made to live in poor housing conditions that threatened their safety. Infectious diseases like tuberculosis and influenza were also rampant among students, leading to many deaths.
The push to remove the statue of Wood also came after community members pulled down a statue of Egerton Ryerson at Ryerson University on Sunday, citing his role in designing Canada’s residential school system.
The BIA board also said there were issues of the society targeting those who are “destitute.”
“With many in the 2SLGBTQ+ community suffering from poverty and homelessness finding refuge in The Village, this needs to be examined. As the community, we need to support and not stigmatize people based on their income,” the collective statement said, going on to “acknowledge the problem of the myth” Wood, in his position, sexually assaulted soldiers.
“This is especially relevant at a time when sexual assault and harassment is coming to light in Canada’s military.”
Hudspeth said the BIA wrote to the City of Toronto, Mayor John Tory and Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam outlining several requests, including help removing the statue and replacing it with a project that is advised by the two-spirit community with costs to be shared between the BIA and the municipality.
When asked about the matter on Wednesday during an unrelated news conference, Tory said the BIA could remove the statue if there’s a desire to do so. He added a report will be coming to council in the coming weeks on how to address statues and memorials.
Tory also said he was open to discussing a replacement project at the site.
However, Hudspeth said he hasn’t received a legal response or a formal letter from the municipality advising on how exactly to proceed next.
“We both put this in place and we both need to take responsibility,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hudspeth encouraged other BIAs and municipalities to assess all statues and monuments in each entity’s jurisdiction.
“All the symbols, all of the things we have out there, it’s time for us to understand them better and not just accept them as being there or having been there for years,” he said.
“Some of these things are very hurtful to people, especially these symbols of white colonialists that are just horrible symbols to our Indigenous peoples.”
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
— With files from David Lao and Twinkle Ghosh