Parks Canada website features Egerton Ryerson, but no mention of his role in establishing residential schools


Egerton Ryerson was a “combative writer on controversial issues” who was “largely responsible for shaping Ontario’s current school system,” says a biography on a federal government website that does not mention anything about Ryerson’s role as the architect of the residential school system.

The text can be found on Parks Canada’s online directory of federal heritage designations. Ryerson’s list is marked as under review – one of 34 “national historic person” designations that are under review by the government.

While some biographies have been withdrawn pending this review, including that of Canada’s Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, others, such as Ryerson’s, remain posted, despite key facts about the life of Dr. their subjects and the devastating impact of their actions, especially on indigenous peoples.

Others are not at all under consideration, such as the entry by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, which does not mention anything about the racist policies of his government, such as the increase in the Chinese head tax and the ban immigration from India. Instead, he describes Laurier as a “remarkable peacemaker”.

This is yet another egregious example of the federal government presenting whitewashed material on historical figures to the public on its web pages, advocates say, while simultaneously committing to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

“These are Government of Canada websites that release information to the public and that information has to be accurate or they shouldn’t be sharing everything,” said Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

“I think we need to look at the role of state sponsored propaganda and how it was really used to cover residential schools and continues to be deployed by the government to cover up current injustices. “

Blackstock said it’s not about removing individuals from the directory for good, but simply presenting the public with a balanced and accurate description of their lives.

According to a list provided to The Star by Parks Canada, the 34 designations under consideration include those of Ryerson, Macdonald and other Fathers of Confederation, pioneering feminists and eugenics advocates Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, and Indigenous individuals, including Chiefs Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) and Mistahi-maskwa (Great Bear.)

Everyone is considered a “national historic person”, defined on the Parks Canada website as “persons who, through their words or actions, have made a unique and lasting contribution to the history of Canada”.

The text describing each person is usually taken from plaques found across Canada. Parks Canada has stated that a review may change the wording of the plaque or the reasons for the designation.

Parks Canada would not say when each review started, and there is no timeline for when they will be completed.

“While Parks Canada’s goal is to complete these reviews as quickly as possible, they are undertaken within the time and resources available and their duration may vary to ensure proper consultation and consideration,” said agency in a press release sent by email.

When asked why biographies under review remain online, Parks Canada said it “is considering options to better communicate on designations under review.”

As to why the biographies of people like Laurier are not being reviewed, the agency said it is working on a “sustainable approach” for the consistent review of designations, and that more will be added to it. list for review over time.

Blackstock wonders how long it will take the government to come up with new wording for another residential school architect, Duncan Campbell Scott.

She said she first contacted the agency three years ago, imploring them to do something about a biography that placed more weight on Campbell Scott’s contributions to the arts than his time at the Department of Indian Affairs. This text has since been deleted, but its online list indicates that it is still under review.

“I was stunned by it,” she said. “I thought someone had to do something about it, and I thought as usual, to begin with, that someone had to be me.”

The reviews raise a number of questions, said Christina Gray, a researcher at the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank.

“I think there should be more transparency,” said Gray, who is also a lawyer at the indigenous rights law firm JFK Law Corp. “What is their methodology? Who is involved in their review? How long will this process take? Are they engaging with the communities affected by the updates? “

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada – which includes a representative with knowledge of the history of each province and territory, as well as several bureaucrats – has the mandate to recommend historic designations to government.

Parks Canada is responsible for providing research services to the board and for installing and maintaining the plaques. The agency said it has a “dedicated team of professional historians” and the reviews typically involve outpatient consultations.

The agency said the board “recognizes the tremendous changes in historical understanding that have occurred over the past century.”

Reasons for the reviews include outdated language, “the lack of a significant layer of history,” factual errors, or “significant new knowledge or studies,” the federal agency said.

The way the federal government portrays many historical Canadian figures has recently come under scrutiny, which has largely downplayed or omitted any mention of devastating policies and racist views.

Library and Archives Canada recently rushed to remove Confederation and Prime Ministers content from its website following Star articles on the issue.

According to internal documents obtained by the Star, national library staff said there was a “deliberate and systematic exclusion of indigenous and non-white communities and perspectives” on some of the agency’s web pages.

Parks Canada’s review doesn’t inspire much confidence, given that it doesn’t review biographies of people like Laurier, said Amy Go, president of the China-Canada National Council for Social Justice.

“Not including Laurier on this review list is extremely frustrating and disappointing, and calls into question the entire review process, as well as the criteria they use to determine what should be reviewed and what not. ‘is not, ”she said.

Parks Canada says it encourages members of the public to contact it if they feel an individual’s biography should be reviewed, but Go and other critics have pointed out that they have no idea that reviews of these designations were even in progress.

“Parks Canada needs to make sure the public knows, in multiple languages, across the country,” Go said. “If you don’t, it really, really means you’re not up to the task. your responsibilities. “

Blackstock believes the delay in updating designations – especially someone like Campbell Scott, who was reported years ago – is a “deliberate choice.”

She highlighted her own work over the past few years with Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson, historian John Milloy, Ottawa Beechwood Cemetery and others to develop historically accurate plaques for several buried people. in the cemetery, including one for Campbell Scott.

The whole process takes about three months, she said, and the work is done by volunteers.

The Beechwood Cemetery plaque mentions both Campbell Scott’s contributions as a poet and his long career at the Department of Indian Affairs, where he “oversaw the assimilationist residential school system for Indigenous children, stating that his goal was to” get rid of the Indian problem ”. “

Parks Canada’s delay in reviewing its own material is a “deliberate choice” without justification, Blackstock said.

“My bottom line is, what the hell were they doing during the pandemic? ” she said. “Here is a project for them.

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