Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, “Architect” of Residential Schools?

The Langevin Block, Ottawa. Wikimedia Commons.

Matthew Hayday

On June 21, 2017, National Aboriginal Day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would be changing the name of the day to National Indigenous Peoples Day. He also announced that his government would change the name of the Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office. The name change had been requested by Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations and a group of Indigenous MPs, including Romeo Saganash, Hunter Tootoo, Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Don Rusnak, among others. A few months earlier, the Langevin Bridge in Calgary was renamed the Reconciliation Bridge.

Shortly after the name change was announced, a series of predictable parties, including Conservative MP Paul Calandra, decried the name change as an attempt to “whitewash history”. Calandra and others like him engaged in this debate by arguing that Sir Hector-Louis Langevin had a mixed legacy, and that he also played many important positive roles in Canadian history, particularly as a Father of Confederation and as a senior Quebec Bleu MP, a Cabinet minister, and Sir John A. Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant, who argued for clemency for Louis Riel.

There is certainly a debate that can be had – and which we historians are having – about issues related to renaming of statues, buildings, and the like. But that is not what this post is about. Rather, I want to engage with some questions related to the renaming of the Langevin Block that I posed to Twitter earlier this week.

What I think has become lost in the debate about the renaming is the manner in which it has been justified. There may well be good reasons for us to accept the renaming of the Langevin building, and I have no intention of becoming some sort of great champion of his record. However, the primary reason that seems to have been advanced is that Hector-Louis Langevin was the “architect” of the residential schools system, that he was the key member of the federal government who pushed for its creation, and, it is implied, that he was the primary person to argue for separating Indigenous children from their parents. This seems to be the main reason for the calls to change the name of the building, and it has featured prominently in the press coverage. But is this true? And if not, do we have a responsibility, as historians, to intervene in public debates about this issue?

The claim regarding Langevin’s central role has been made in a number of places. As colleagues who know more about this topic have pointed out to me – and I make no claims to having particular expertise on either late-19th century Canadian political history or Indigenous history – Langevin’s role has been cited in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission[1], in Agnes Grant’s No End of Grief: Indian Residential Schools in Canada[2], and in the Canadian Encyclopedia entry, among other places.

Where things get problematic for me is that all of these sources, and all press coverage of the issue, base their case on a single quotation. It comes from a speech made by Langevin, then Minister of Public Works, in the House of Commons during a debate on the budget on May 22, 1883, when he said:

The intention is to establish three Indian industrial schools in the North-West…They have succeeded very well in the United States, and it is quite likely that they will succeed here as well. The fact is if you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes — it is to be hoped only the good tastes — of civilized people.[3] [Emphasis added]

Langevin, as Minister of Public Works, presumably would have been speaking to the issue since it was his department that would be responsible for building the schools. But does this make him the architect of the idea to create the schools? Was he the main driver behind them? Perhaps, and more research could, and likely should, be done into his papers and those of his ministry to find out what else he might have said or wrote about the topic.

But here is where things get murky, and where I’m inclined to question the “architect” label and the amount of credit/blame that has been attached to him as a primary instigator of the residential schools. Langevin was not the minister responsible for Indian Affairs. Prime Minister Macdonald had reserved that role for himself. And less than two weeks earlier, Macdonald himself had been the one to present the concept of residential schools in the House:

Secular education is a good thing among white men, but among Indians the first object is to make them better men, and, if possible, good Christian men by applying proper moral restraints, and appealing to the instinct for worship which is to be found in all nations, whether civilized or uncivilized. A vote will be asked for in the Supplementary Estimates for 1883-84, for a larger description of schools. When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men; so that, after keeping them a number of years away from parental influence until their education is finished, they will be able to go back to their band with the habits of mind, the education, and the industry which they have learned at these schools.[4] [Emphasis added]

To me, this raises serious questions about the extent of Langevin’s role in this process, and about who was actually the originator and champion of the policy. In the absence of more evidence, it seems that this was Macdonald’s policy, and that Langevin was effectively parroting his Prime Minister’s speech.

Langevin’s comments were still odious and offensive, to be certain. But in the absence of more compelling evidence, what he appears to be is a dutiful minister carrying out the will of the minister actually responsible for the dossier (John A. Macdonald), insofar as it touched his ministry. He was complicit in implementing the policy, absolutely. But I don’t think that necessarily means he was a driver of the policy, any more than one of Stephen Harper or Justin Trudeau’s MPs or Cabinet Ministers who repeat standard party talking points are necessarily the brains behind a given operation.

More evidence may well come to light regarding Langevin’s role in the residential school system, and I would absolutely welcome learning more about this. But in the absence of this evidence I think we, as historians, need to be cautious about how we discuss, or write, or encourage others to accept, this narrative about Sir Hector-Louis Langevin. As a Roman Catholic, conservative, Bleu Member of Parliament, his are not the politics that align with those of most of Canada’s professional historical profession. Langevin’s is also a much easier name to remove from buildings and bridges than that of Prime Minister Macdonald. Moreover, inserting a note of caution into how we treat his historical memory may not be a politically popular line to be taking. But I believe that as historians, we do have a professional obligation to consider the evidence carefully before creating or supporting interpretations of history that may cast a not-entirely warranted negative cast on a person’s legacy. As I noted at the outset, there may well be good reasons, regardless of all of this, to change the name of the Langevin building. But we should also be cautious about inadvertently – or by our silence – allowing a narrative about Langevin’s role to be created without more evidence to support it.

Matthew Hayday is a professor of Canadian history at the University of Guelph. He researches and teaches about Canadian political history, language policy, celebrations and commemorations.


[1] Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1, Origins to 1939. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Volume 1. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015), 160-61.

[2] Agnes Grant, No End of Grief: Indian Residential Schools in Canada (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications, 1996), 64.

[3] Canada. Debates of the House of Commons, May 22, 1883, 1st Session, 5th Parliament, p. 1376.

[4] Canada. Debates of the House of Commons, May 9, 1883, 1st Session, 5th Parliament, p. 1107-1108

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7 thoughts on “Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, “Architect” of Residential Schools?

  1. Jason Ellis (@jasone_history)

    This is an interesting and important post. Naming debates, I think, are a lot less about history than we historians think. I’m not suggesting that any of us are naive, that we do not appreciate the inherent presentism of naming. But is good history–and Prof Hayday’s post is that–going to change the debate much? I’m not sure that it will, or that it matters. In a number of different instances I’ve made similar arguments in varying contexts about the use and misuse of history to the one that Prof Hayday makes here, attempting to inject good history into the debate. The thing is: people engaged in these debates don’t care about good history. They care about the present. If a good history argument suits them, they will pick it up. If it doesn’t they won’t. I’m more and more inclined to leave them to it. Moreover, as a historian I’m interested in an accurate historical accounting for Langevin, as Hayday proposes here. As a member of the public, I’d rather see a bridge named the Reconciliation Bridge than the Langevin Bridge, not necessarily because of anything to do with Langevin as a historical figure, but because a Reconciliation Bridge sends an important message in the here and now that I can endorse.
    None of this is to say that we historians should cease from doing good history. But it does mean that maybe we should not squander that on debates where people aren’t likely to listen to us anyway? (I leave that as a question mark perhaps because I’m feeling overly cynical and I want some historian therapy to pick me up.)

  2. Alison Norman

    Yes, this was my thinking too. Rename the building but I never understood him to be the “architect” of the system. A brave post by Dr. Hayday.

  3. Matthew Hayday

    Jason, I’m inclined to agree with you that our voices don’t count nearly as much in these debates over naming – or many other policy debates – as we might like them to. I’ve had other frustrating experiences related to similar issues in the public sphere, although I keep trying to speak up when I have a bit of energy.

    I think that part of what made me inclined to tweet about this issue, and then write this post about it, is that this narrative is getting picked up elsewhere, in places where historians might have more influence (or even control) – it was a colleague who pointed out to me that the “architect” line is being used now in the Canadian Encylopedia. I could all too easily see it being the case that historians for whom this is not their area of expertise would start adding a sentence into their Canadian survey courses putting the blame squarely on Langevin. Or that this could trickle into new high school history textbooks. Or being included in a museum exhibit. Part of this is about us being alert, as historians, about how this new narrative is emerging, and what its evidentiary basis is.

  4. Jason Ellis (@jasone_history)

    Your point about the Canadian Encyclopedia is excellent, Matthew. Certainly we don’t want that line there, not least of all because it also lets the real architects slither away from being held historically accountable (as you also suggest). One would hope though that peer review would catch all of these instances you mention.

  5. Val Jobson

    Thank you for writing this; I think you are correct to question if Langevin had much of a role in expanding the residential school system as a means of assimilation. Possibly his Department of Public Works built the school buildings for the Department of Indian Affairs, but the DIA ran the schools in conjunction with the churches.

    I don’t know why the Langevin Bridge in Calgary was named after him or if he had any noteworthy connection to Calgary, but quite a few places in Alberta were named on the whim of railway builders or settlers. It didn’t matter much to me when they changed the name to Reconciliation Bridge.

  6. Deb Lee

    The Langevin Bridge was originally built in the 1880’s and named after Hector Louis Langevin who, as the Minister of Public Works had funded the building of the wooden bridge across the Bow River which enabled a reliable route from the new settlement of Calgary northward to Edmonton. After several years of heavy traffic, the bridge was in poor condition and the new provincial government funded a modern steel bridge – completed in 1910 which also supported the annexation of the community of Riverside to Calgary. This bridge has been a reliable means transportation across the river for many years, linking Bridgeland -Riverside and other communities with the downtown. In the 1970’s, a concrete flyover style bridge was built nearby and it was called the east Langevin Bridge. Calgary’s review of the Truth and Reconciliation report resulted in the White Goose Flying document – which outlined Calgary’s response to the TRC recommendations. Strangely the report called for the renaming of the Langevin Bridge, although the TRC report did not recommend renaming at all – rather that places be commemorated. In the Calgary it appears that little attention has been paid to the historical facts of Langevin’s role in the residential school tragedy. The decision to rename the bridge was political, a scapegoating of one man to attempt to “make things right” with indigenous people today. Today the Langevin – now Reconciliation Bridge is 107 years old-and very rusty in appearance although the installation of LED lights has made it very pretty at night. The underpass area to both Langevin Bridges is a hangout area for homeless people and drug dealers. Whether this renaming achieves its goal remains to be seen. I thank Matthew Hayday for publishing this article in these days of political correctness and encourage all historians to continue to make the facts of the past known. Politicians may choose not to hear these facts but its important for the truth to be part of the public record.

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