Did Anyone Not See This Coming? Erin O’Toole and the Historical Politics of Public Memory

Erin O’Toole, the newly minted leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has some positive things to say about residential schools. At least he did, when he thought he was speaking to a closed shop of otherwise conservative leaning students. O’Toole – or, someone in his office – very quickly tried to walk his comments back … sort of.[1]  What happened and what are we to make of it? For people interested in the ways in which history is conscripted into the service of contemporary politics, O’Toole’s comments are important to consider.

O’Toole’s comments illustrate the degree to which history weighs on the minds of conservatives. The CPC leader’s insensitive and inaccurate comments were made during a strategy discussion with a Ryerson University student conservative club. Exactly how the subject shifted to Indigenous history and Canada’s genocidal policies is not 100% clear from the reporting but – judging from reports[2] – O’Toole himself does not seem to have found this slide unusual or unwarranted.

O’Toole’s comments highlight the degree of confusion – if not outright misrepresentation — that persists with regard to residential schools in Canadian public life. They allow us to better isolate the ideological and historical dynamics through which that confusion is maintained. Exactly how anyone could state that residential schools were intended to “provide education” in 2020 is not clear because it involves an almost willful ignorance of an historical record that has been the subject of extensive public discussion.

History is, of course, always contested. There are always a range of different interpretations of the past. O’Toole’s comments, however, are something other than a competing interpretation of the past. They represent a discourse that enters into historical discussion without the least recognition of its own ignorance. Put differently, it is a perspective that edits its own ignorance from its pronouncements.

This situation also shows the degree to which conservatives like O’Toole are uneasy when it comes to historical research and what it tells us about the past; it is as if that research is telling them things that they either don’t want to hear or don’t want to believe. Even when a leader like O’Toole recognizes (or, claims to recognize) inescapable historical facts, he is troubled by those facts because, he seems to think, they enact a political discourse he finds uncongenial.

The titular subject O’Toole was addressing in this case was the commemoration of Egerton Ryerson; whether or not a statue should be removed and the name of the university changed. For O’Toole, it was important to defend Ryerson’s memory and “win” the argument against what he depicted vaguely as “lefty radicals.”[3]

In making this association, O’Toole connects his understanding of history directly to contemporary politics. His instructions to the students at Ryerson seemed to involve telling them to work with “sound bite” history. Here is an example:

“Here’s a nugget you can say that, when I say it in [P]arliament, it silences the Liberals like you wouldn’t believe: ‘You know who opened more residential schools than Egerton Ryerson? Pierre Elliott Trudeau’.”[4]

There is so much wrong with this approach to history that it is difficult to know where to begin. The comparison is inappropriate; it attacks the current Prime Minister by name association with the past; it is offered to silence rather than promote discussion; and, through this sort of misplaced comparison, it looks to excuse colonialism rather than understand it; it also looks to re-affirm political entrenchments, rather than engage in honest discussion.

Said differently, O’Toole seems to be trying to use history as a form of propagandistic debating points in which the objective is to best one’s opponents for political reasons rather than seek understanding. O’Toole goes on:

“Conservatives, when it comes to residential schools in the modern era, have a better record than the Liberals,” O’Toole said.

“Who closed that program? Mulroney. Who apologized for it? Harper.”[5]

There are empirical issues with this statement, and these are important. But the deeper problem is the near shameless politicized whitewashing.[6] What this kind of narrative does is to make white men the heroes of decolonization, an argument that can only be sustained by the factual issues that haunt O’Toole’s discourse.

This is where mistakes in fact and whitewashing combine. It is only through a deeply flawed and inaccurate understanding of the past that O’Toole’s narrative can be maintained. To disagree with it, one does not need to be a “liberal” or a “radical lefty.” All one needs to be is interested in accuracy.

Finally, O’Toole or someone else did try to walk back this language, but they seem to have done so grudgingly, as if they really didn’t want to. In an update to the original story posted on PressProgress and Global News, “the Conservative leader’s office said that O’Toole ‘is a champion for reconciliation’ and ‘takes the horrific history of residential schools very seriously.’”[7] Yet, this championing and seriousness could not be simply stated. Instead, it came with yet another quick shot at people O’Toole, or the Conservative Party of Canada, views as their political opponents. A spokesperson followed up by deflecting from O’Toole’s comments in a way that indicates the grudging character of their recognition of the very horrors they claim to take seriously:

“He has also been clear in highlighting the damage cancel culture can have. Defending free speech, especially on campus, is important, just as remembering our past is an important part of aspiring for better in the future,” wrote O’Toole’s spokesperson Chelsea Tucker in an emailed statement.[8]

There is something remarkably odd in this statement. It appears as if O’Toole’s whitewashed inaccurate presentation of the past is somehow excused by stating there is something wrong with some amorphous “cancel culture.”

This is not a walk back.

In fact, it might be a semi-disguised re-assertion of the original position, casting aspersions on the very Indigenous activists troubled by commemorations of genocide while claiming to support their cause and respect their views. O’Toole and the CPC leadership seem to believe that simply saying they support First Peoples without making a meaningful effort to learn about their past is somehow sufficient.

Rather than fighting a rear-guard action to commemorate people who should not be commemorated, rather than ignoring the empirical record of the past and a generation of intense historical research, rather than seeing historical debate as a matter of “winning” or losing, there are other ways to approach the past.

This might sound odd, but I respect the fact that conservatives want to talk about history. What I am hoping is that this desire can be taken to the next level. Free advice is worth what you pay for it, but that next level for a leader like Erin O’Toole is to directly engage with history and the work or Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers and historians. He could start by demonstrating an understanding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, its work and its Final Report.

Historical scholarship is always political. But, its political character does not mean historical perspectives need to be developed without due attention to research and accuracy. O’Toole’s discourse points to a number of problems with his understanding of history. The good news is: these problems can be corrected. Learn and read history; talk about the work of knowledge keepers and historians when you express an opinion about the past. This is a very low threshold for anyone holding public office.

Andrew Nurse is an associate professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.

[1] Christopher Reynolds, “O’Toole walks back words on residential schools amid backlash” CTV News (16 December 2020) https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/o-toole-walks-back-words-on-residential-schools-amid-backlash-1.5233782.

[2] Ibid., and Peter Zimonjic and Catherine Cullen, “Erin O’Toole walks back claims that residential schools were designed to ‘provide education’” CBC News (16 December 2020) https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/erin-otoole-residential-schools-comments-1.5844307.

[3] “Erin O’Toole Claimed Residential School Architects Only Meant to ‘Provide Education’ to Indigenous Children” PressProgress.ca (15 December 2020) https://pressprogress.ca/erin-otoole-claimed-residential-school-architects-only-meant-to-provide-education-to-indigenous-children/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tayo Bero, “Stop Whitewashing Our National History” The Walras (13 October 2020) https://thewalrus.ca/stop-whitewashing-our-national-history/.

[7] Rachel Girlmore, “O’Toole tells students residential schools created to ‘provide education’ but became ‘horrible” Global News (15 December 2020; updated 16 December 2020) https://globalnews.ca/news/7524370/otoole-residential-schools-eduction-horrible/.

[8] Ibid.

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