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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is taking back comments he made about residential schools to Ryerson University students after facing criticism from Indigenous and other leaders.

Mr. O’Toole said in a statement that the “existence of residential schools is a terrible stain on Canada’s history that has had sweeping impacts on generations of Indigenous Canadians.”

“I speak about the harm caused by residential schools regularly,” he said. “In my comments to Ryerson students, I said that the residential school system was intended to try and ‘provide education.’ It was not. The system was intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures.”

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Mr. O’Toole made the original remarks to a Conservative club at Ryerson University last month that were posted on Facebook. They garnered attention on social media after they were posted on Tuesday by the website PressProgress.

Mr. O’Toole issued his follow-up statement on Wednesday after Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde expressed dismay about the comments, suggesting they were intended to score political points.

In a statement, Mr. Bellegarde said he looked forward to sitting down with Mr. O’Toole in the new year to help him better understand how First Nations continue to grapple with the lasting effects of the residential school system that was “wrong from the start and made worse by decades of political mismanagement and indifference.”

“It is disappointing that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole sought to use the residential school tragedy, which has devastated generations of First Nations families, to score meaningless political points,” Mr. Bellegarde said.

In the comments, Mr. O’Toole also said that “left radicals” are some of the dumbest people at the university, adding that former Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau opened more residential schools than Egerton Ryerson, a 19th-century educator and residential school pioneer after which Ryerson University in Toronto is named.

Conservatives have a better record than Liberals on residential schools in the modern era, he added, pointing to examples including the 2008 residential school apology by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

“Let’s learn from the bad mistakes and, in some cases, tragic circumstances of our past,” Mr. O’Toole said.

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“But when Egerton Ryerson was called in by [residential school system architect] Hector Langevin and people, it was meant to try and provide education. It became a horrible program that really harmed people, and we have to learn from that, and I wear orange, and I do that. But we’re not helping anyone by misrepresenting the past.”

On Wednesday, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett said she was disappointed to see the Conservative Leader making residential schools “a partisan game.”

“Any attempt at defending these damaging policies only serves to hurt the families and survivors more,” she wrote on Twitter.

Ontario NDP MP Charlie Angus also criticized Mr. O’Toole’s comments, saying an attempt to deny the genocidal nature of the residential schools that targeted the destruction of Indigenous families is not acceptable.

This week, the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent six years investigating the legacy of residential schools in Canada, issued a joint statement to mark five years since the release of their final report. In it, the commissioners said they are concerned about the slow and uneven pace of implementation of their 94 calls to action.

The commission documented how the residential schools, which operated for more than 150 years, were used as a tool of assimilation by the Canadian state and churches, resulting in thousands suffering physical and sexual abuse. More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the schools and many never returned.

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Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday said that Mr. Harper’s 2008 residential school apology recognized that the schools were designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” He also said that all political parties issued apologies at the same time.

“For him [Mr. O’Toole] to have suggested to some of his young Conservative club members that that was not the case, that is, in my view, purely political partisanship,” Mr. Sinclair said. “He should not be making a partisan issue about the situation that happened to young Indigenous children in those schools.”

Mr. Sinclair said he would not be surprised to hear residential school survivors, their families and the Indigenous community generally say that Mr. O’Toole and the Conservatives cannot be trusted when it comes to Indigenous people as a result of the remarks.

“Now they don’t know whether he is speaking truthfully when he says that he now believes they were in fact harmful or whether he was actually speaking his real thoughts when he was speaking in a closed conversation with his own Conservative club members,” Mr. Sinclair said.

“That suggests to me that he has real trust issues that he’s now going to have to come to terms with in the Indigenous community.”

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