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This article was published 2/6/2021 (391 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — As shock waves continue to reverberate following the discovery of a gravesite of 215 Indigenous children, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller spoke out Wednesday against taking down the statues of the prime minister responsible for creating the residential schools that led to their deaths.
Miller said removing statues of Sir John A Macdonald from public display would amount to Canadians taking their eyes off the brutal history and legacy of the schools.
“Knocking things down, breaking things is not my preferred option. Turning my eyes away from things is not my preferred option,” Miller said during a news conference in a government building named after Macdonald.
“Looking at things as painful as they are, explaining why they are, is my preferred option.”
Across the country, institutions and local governments are resuming efforts to remove statues of Canada’s first prime minister, and to rename streets and schools whose namesakes have a direct connection to Canada’s residential school program.
Similar such movements have become flashpoints over the last several years, including last summer in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests, when Miller and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke out against taking down the monuments.
But the outpouring of anger now is more directly targeted at the heart of one of Macdonald’s legacies: the residential school system.
The revelation last week that 215 children were buried in unmarked graves on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. is leading to fresh rounds of soul-searching about whether and how Canada must come to grips with the deadly effect of those schools, which were initiated by Macdonald’s government in 1883.
During the century that followed — the last school closed in 1996 — about 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their homes and forced to attend what Miller called “labour camps” that were built for the express purpose of eradicating their culture.
At least 4,000 children are known to have died while attending residential schools. Following the discovery of the graves in Kamloops last week, those estimates have begun to climb, with some now speculating the number could be as high as 25,000.
“We know there are lots of sites similar to Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future. We need to begin to prepare ourselves for that,” former senator Murray Sinclair said in a written statement late Tuesday.
“Those that are survivors and intergenerational survivors need to understand that this information is important for all of Canada to understand the magnitude of the truth of this experience.”
What must be done with that information is a debate taking many forms, be it the removal of Macdonald statues or the demands for the federal government to move much faster to implement the calls to action on missing children and burial information contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report on residential schools.
In 2019, some $27 million was set aside to respond to those calls, but the funds were redirected to address the impacts of the pandemic and to finish off virtual engagement sessions on the response to the TRC, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office said Wednesday.
Some money began to flow last year. On Wednesday, Bennett announced communities that want to begin the work of documenting, locating and memorializing missing children could apply anew and the money would flow on an “urgent” basis.
How that work is done must be determined in consultation with communities, Bennett and Miller have insisted.
The ministers said on Tuesday it is also important to listen to those who speak out against Macdonald.
However, Miller said the debate over renaming buildings or taking down statues has become too partisan, and misses the point.
“I respect the meaning and the expression of people saying we need to take this down, rip it down,” he said.
“It’s an expression of pain. I understand. I’m not a proponent of it. I think we have to keep explaining. We have to keep explaining so that we don’t repeat those errors.”
Conservative politicians have also spoken out against the need to tear down statues, though for different reasons, arguing doing so amounts to so-called “cancel culture.”
Conservatives including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and federal Leader Erin O’Toole have also said removing statues of people like Macdonald would also erase all acknowledgment of the benefits they provided to Canada.
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz