In my time working on Parliament Hill there are certain moments and days that will stick with me forever, no matter what. I was blessed to witness more than a few moments that I’ll be able to tell my daughter and grandchildren about someday, moments that I felt blessed to take part in. Today is the 5th anniversary of one such event that I got to witness, and it’s one that thankfully we are still remembering today:
It was on this day back in 2015 that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report on the residential school system, a moment that was cathartic as it gets. The day that the interim report was released half a year prior is also etched in my mind, when then Conservative Minister Bernard Valcourt stay glued to his seat while an entire ballroom full of families, survivors and others stood and applauded the hard work undertaken by the Commissioners like now-Senator Murray Sinclair.
That should have been a landmark moment in our history, when our political leaders faced up to the realities of not only what the residential schools did to generations of Indigenous families and communities, but also to what it would take to start to heal. The report rightly called their recommendations “Calls to Action” because that was what was required; action. Some of those things have bothered some on the political spectrum, as they have made cries about “cancel culture” and trying to “whitewash history”.
Those mostly concerned with that have been Conservatives, as it was a Conservative government and Prime Minister who set country down this path and vowed to “kill the Indian in the child”. It’s become common place to see some in the Conservative movement deny the full truth of the schools, try to downplay them or even say they’re better because of Stephen Harper’s apology and the recreation of the Commission under his Prime Ministership. They ignore the part that both of those things were mandated by the courts, as a part of a settlement with survivors of the schools. They ignore that Harper’s government fought the work of the Commission and even it’s conclusions, highlighted by Valcourt glued to his chair in a ballroom in the Delta Hotel in Ottawa.
The leadership of Andrew Scheer did precious little to help matters but when Erin O’Toole became leader, it appeared that maybe his approach to Indigenous peoples would be a bit differently. He continues their fact-free opposition to UNDRIP, but he was talking out in support of Indigenous communities trying to get clean water and on COVID help. It was notable because it was a different approach, one that I would argue was welcomed in many corners. But today a story from Press Progress has come out, which shows that while O’Toole was saying that publicly, he was singing a different tune behind closed Zoom doors. And folks, it’s got me quite pissed:
O’Toole’s completely disrespectful comment about students with different political beliefs being “the dumbest people at your university” runs totally counter to how he has tried to painted himself publicly, which is bad unto itself. It’s the kind of childish partisan BS that the Andrew Scheer leadership became famous for, and was the kind of thing that he was elected to undo. So much for that, I guess.
But more importantly is O’Toole attempts to try to downplay the intent of what the residential schools was all about. It was not “meant to try and provide education” as O’Toole tried to paint it, and point out that historical fact is not “misrepresenting the past”, as he tried to claim. If anyone is “not helping” anyone here, it’s O’Toole’s attempt to whitewash the history of the schools and to try to paint the Conservatives as the good guys. He again points to Harper’s actions, of course glossing over the fact that Harper was forced to do what he did. He made it sound like an act of high-minded benevolence, which also ignores everything the Harper government did to ignore Indigenous rights and underfund Indigenous communities.
When I saw this story from O’Toole, I was mad, I admit it. This is a guy who seemed to be making some progress within his own party, or at least seemed more willing to. But to hear this, the ignorant and dismissive tone that he uses, shocked me. It also reminded me a comment from a quote from Senator Sinclair that he made to CBC.ca in the past few days about the state of reconciliation in Canada. These words rang in my ears as I heard O’Toole comments:
“What I’ve said is that we will never achieve reconciliation when one side to the dialogue sees it as an act of benevolence and one side sees it as a recognition of rights”Source. CBC.ca
The way that O’Toole tried to frame his comments was from a place of benevolence. He tried to frame the acts taken by the Harper Government around the apology and the Commission in the way. He tried to frame the school themselves as a benevolent place, there only to give an education and things just happened to go horribly wrong. He tried to frame people like MacDonald, Langevin and Ryerson as good, noble people who were only trying to do good, regardless of what the historical record and their actually words and actions demonstrated. You know, the facts, O’Toole seems to think that it’s a pity that we take those into account.
In those ugly words, in those statements that are contemptuous of both history, the survivors of the schools and their families, O’Toole makes himself into that person that Sinclair so clearly described just a few days ago. That is the sign of a Conservative leader who truly don’t get it, but also is no different on these matters of such deep importance to we in the Indigenous community. While saying one thing in public, he’s been doing the opposite in private and showing what appears to be his true views on these matters. He owes some serious apologies and fast because words like those are beyond the pale for any elected politician today, let alone the Leader of the Official Opposition.
I can honestly say I’m disappointed, but not surprised, just as I felt when I saw Bernard Valcourt glued to his seat five years ago. The old saying goes that when someone shows you who you are, you should believe them. In that short clip, Erin O’Toole has showed Indigenous peoples from Coast to Coast to Coast who he is and just as it was with Valcourt, I’m disappointed but not surprised.