Erin O’Toole, the head of the Canadian Conservative Party, has received a flurry of bad press for comments he made about Canada’s notorious Indian residential schools program. Given the power of shame in Canadian politics these days, his words seem likely to be forever cited by rivals as evidence that he lacks the moral standing to be prime minister — which is ironic, given his comments were supposed to help defuse the power that the residential-schools issue holds in Canadian political discourse.

This past November, O’Toole was asked to speak to Ryerson University’s Conservative club. Ryerson University is named after Egerton Ryerson, a major figure in the development of the English-Canadian educational system during the mid-19th century, a project that also entailed doubling down on efforts to isolate and assimilate Indigenous children into White, Christian society. It’s a legacy some have dubbed a “cultural genocide,” while others say the genocide was more literal, given high rates of disease, abuse and death at Indian boarding schools. In 2005, the Canadian government approved $1.9 billion in reparations to the long-running program’s former students, now bleakly called “survivors.”

To many conservatives, something feels off about this narrative. Many are instinctively skeptical that Canada committed a conscious genocide, yet are too broadly ignorant of Canadian history (a hardly unique condition) to offer confident pushback. There have been calls to rename Ryerson, which bothered the school’s young Tories, and O’Toole was asked for counsel.

If one wanted to defend Ryerson (or any historical figure facing cancellation for their association with residential schools), then the obvious path is an appeal to historic context. Ryerson was born in 1803 and raised in a preindustrial society in which religious faith, archaic pseudoscience and sweeping inferences from incredibly limited information were not merely acceptable types of knowledge, but often its prevailing form. A fierce Methodist preacher turned civil servant, Ryerson was unable to conceptualize public schools that were not also tools of proselytization.

“First and foremost, a system of education must be Christian,” is how the Dictionary of Canadian Biography summarizes his philosophy, “a secular education was a danger to the child and the society as well as a denial of God’s message to mankind.”Such a project would have to be pursued particularly vigorously to unchurched Aboriginals, and Ryerson, who once worked as a missionary in Indian country, used his status as Ontario’s most powerful educational bureaucrat to promote conversionary schools for Indigenous children.

In other ways, Ryerson’s values as a government administrator were defensible and modern. His long tenure as Ontario superintendent helped establish the system of free, universal public education Canadians now take for granted, and he was a critic of corporal punishment. But in having no respect for separating church and state, or the liberties of non-Christians, he was a backward man from an ignorant time.

In 2018, Stanford University released a thoughtful list of principles to inform future decisions about rebranding “features of the university” named after controversial people. Among other things, “the centrality of the person’s offensive behavior to his or her life as a whole” should be considered, especially when “other aspects of the person’s life and work are especially praiseworthy.”

O’Toole should have given his student audience this grown-up assignment. What O’Toole actually did, however, was spend the bulk of his comments playing an embarrassing game of partisan whataboutism. “Here’s a nugget you can say that, when I say it in Parliament, it silences the Liberals like you wouldn’t believe,” O’Toole bragged at one point. “You know who opened more residential schools than Egerton Ryerson? Pierre Elliott Trudeau.”

It’s obviously absurd to imply that Trudeau — Canada’s Liberal prime minister in the late 20th century (and father of the current one) — was a man animated by the same assumptions about Aboriginal education as a Victorian Methodist minister. Indeed, even accusing Trudeau of “opening residential schools” is a cynical exploitation of the overbroad way such schools have been classified. It’s akin to the game some Republicans play where requests to grapple with the legacy of slavery or segregation are sneered away with comments about how many racist politicians were Democrats.

The remarks O’Toole has received the most bad press for — his comment that Ryerson’s Indigenous schools initially tried to “provide education” but then “became a horrible program that really harmed people” — are similarly shallow. Ryerson did not have an understanding of education — for anyone — that was distinct from Christianization, a mentality it’s fine to call sheltered and stupid.

If Conservatives fear Canadian history is being dumbed down or sensationalized by the left, then they must respond in opposite fashion and behave maturely when contemplating Canada’s multidimensional past. In attempting to turn history into a partisan weapon, then immediately backing down when called out, O’Toole shows he’s ill-equipped to lead this particular culture war.

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