Removing Sir Hector-Louis Langevin’s name from the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office makes as much sense as renaming the Lord Elgin Hotel around the corner on Elgin Street.
In a recent letter to Public Services Minister Judy Foote, three aboriginal MPs and the Liberal indigenous caucus said: "Surely you can see the incongruity of naming a building after the architect of this (residential school) system."
In fact, Langevin — a French nationalist who favoured uniting the British colonies rather than joining the Americans — was not "the architect" of residential schools.
Day schools and residential schools for aboriginal children were in place decades before Confederation.
The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent in America (The New England Company) established a day school on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve near Brantford, Ont., in 1828.
Langevin was only two years old at that time.
The New England Company opened a residential school in 1834.
By the time Langevin was four, the Methodists were operating 11 schools for aboriginal children in southern Ontario attended by 400 students, 150 of whom could read.
Here’s where the Right Hon. James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin — after whom the Lord Elgin Hotel at 100 Elgin St. — comes in.
In July 1849 — 18 years before Confederation — Lord Elgin laid the cornerstone for the residential school at Muncey, Ont.
According to the July 25, 1849, issue of the Christian Guardian journal, the laying of the corner stone for the Mount Elgin school was attended by the chiefs of the Muncey, Ojibwa and Oneida tribes, along with more than 500 of their members.
"A deep interest was manifestly felt by the great body of Christianized Indians assembled for the occasion," the report said.
Ojibwa missionary Peter Jones translated the addresses — including that of governor general Elgin — and Ojibway reverend John Sunday "closed the services by prayer in the Ojibwa language."
Langevin was 23 at that time.
Was Langevin a racist, as those urging that his name be removed from the Langevin Block claim that he was?
An 1883 statement he made in the House of Commons is often cited as proof positive that he was.
Here’s what he said: "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 will 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."
That same position was taken as far back as 1847 by Egerton Ryerson, after whom Toronto’s Ryerson University is named.
In a letter he wrote when he was Upper Canada’s chief superintendent of education, Ryerson said "nothing can be done to improve and elevate his (aboriginal child’s) character and condition without the aid of religious feeling. This information must be superadded to all others to make the Indian a sober and industrious man."
Ryerson said numerous experiments had shown that "the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings."
Through today’s eyes, both Ryerson and Langevin come across as racists.
However, they were most definitely not the exceptions that proved the rule.
James Colcleugh, one of the leading citizens of the Selkirk area, said the Ojibwas’ occupation of the St. Peter’s Reserve was a "drawback to our growth and prosperity." He told the local member of Parliament that if he could "devise some means of busting the reserve... your name will be immortalized!"
In 1906, Hector Howell, chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Appeal, issued a report in which he said it was in the interests of both the neighbourhood and the band that the Ojibwas "get off that reserve" which, in his opinion, was "a black spot" and altogether too close to "civilization."
The Department of Indian Affairs closed the St. Peter’s reserve in 1907 and moved the Ojibwa families about 120 kilometres north to the newly established Peguis reserve.
There were no houses, schools, churches or roads. None of the land had been broken. The only store was 12 km away and the nearest town was 120 km away.
But, even at the new reserve — which, ironically, was named after Chief Peguis without whose support hundreds of Scottish Settlers who arrived at the Red River Settlement in 1812 would have perished — white settlers started to complain the presence of the Ojibwa would make white people less inclined to settle there.
Those were different times and people of different times — such as Langevin — should be judged according to the values of those times.
Rather than expending energy renaming buildings because of the actions and attitudes of more than 100 years ago, it would be more beneficial to aboriginal peoples to apply that energy to resolving the issues of today.
Toronto author Robert MacBain has been involved with the aboriginal file for more than 50 years, as a reporter for major newspapers in the 1960s, consultant to the Department of Indian Affairs in the early 1970s, and author of Their Home and Native Land.