Egerton Ryerson was a “combative writer on controversial issues” who was “largely responsible for shaping Ontario’s present school system,” says a biography on a federal government website that mentions nothing about Ryerson’s role as an architect of the Indian residential school system.
The text is found on Parks Canada’s online directory of federal heritage designations. Ryerson’s listing is marked as being under review — one of 34 “national historic person” designations that are being reviewed by the government.
While some biographies have been taken down pending that review — including the one for Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald — others such as the one for Ryerson remain posted, despite omitting key facts about the lives of their subjects and the devastating impact of their actions, especially on Indigenous peoples.
Others are not under review at all, such as the entry for prime minister Wilfrid Laurier, which mentions nothing about his government’s racist policies, such as increasing the Chinese head tax and banning immigration from India. Instead, it describes Laurier as a “remarkable conciliator.”
It is yet another glaring example of the federal government presenting the public with whitewashed material about historical figures on its web pages, advocates say, while simultaneously committing to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“These are Government of Canada websites putting information to the public and that information ought to be accurate, or they shouldn’t be sharing it all,” 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 that really was used to cover up residential schools and continues to be deployed by government to cover up current injustices.”
Blackstock said it’s not a question of permanently removing the individuals from the directory, but simply presenting the public with a balanced, accurate depiction of their lives.
According to a list provided to the Star by Parks Canada, the 34 designations under review include those for Ryerson, Macdonald and other Fathers of Confederation, feminist pioneers and eugenics advocates Emily Murphy and Nellie McClung, and Indigenous individuals including chiefs Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) and Mistahi-maskwa (Big Bear.)
Each is considered a “national historic person,” defined on the Parks Canada website as “people who, through their words or actions, have made a unique and enduring contribution to the history of Canada.”
The text describing each individual is typically taken from plaques that can be found across Canada. Parks Canada said a review can lead to a change in the wording of the plaque, or reasons for the designation.
Parks Canada would not say when each review began, 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 as time and resources permit and can vary in length to ensure proper consultation and consideration occurs,” the agency said in an emailed statement.
Asked why the biographies that are under review remain online, Parks Canada said it is “considering options for better communicating about designations that are under review.”
As to why biographies of people like Laurier are not under review, the agency said it is working on a “sustainable approach” for the consistent review of designations, and that more will be added to the list for review over time.
Blackstock wonders just how much longer it’s going to take the government to come up with new wording for another residential school architect, Duncan Campbell Scott.
She said she first reached out to the agency three years ago, imploring it to do something about a biography that placed more importance on Campbell Scott’s contributions to the arts than it did on his time with the Indian Affairs Department. That text has since been removed, but his listing online says it is still under review.
“I was gobsmacked by it,” she said. “I thought someone needs to do something about this, and I thought as usual, for a start, that someone has to be me.”
The reviews spark a number of questions, said Christina Gray, research fellow at the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank.
“I think that there should be greater transparency,” said Gray, who is also a lawyer at Indigenous rights law firm JFK Law Corp. “What’s their methodology? Who is involved in their review? How long will this process take? Are they engaging with those communities who are affected by updates?”
The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada — which includes a representative with a knowledge in history from each province and territory, as well as several bureaucrats — has the mandate to recommend historical designations to the government.
Parks Canada is responsible for providing research services to the board and installing and maintaining the plaques. The agency said it has a “dedicated team of professional historians,” and that reviews typically involve external consultations.
The agency said that the board “recognizes the enormous shifts in historical understanding that have occurred over the past century.”
Reasons for reviews include outdated language, “absence of a significant layer of history,” factual errors, or “significant new knowledge or scholarship,” the federal agency said.
There has recently been heightened scrutiny on the way the federal government portrays many Canadian historical figures, which have largely underplayed or omitted any mention of devastating policies and racist viewpoints.
Library and Archives Canada recently scrambled to remove content about Confederation and the prime ministers from its website in the wake of Star stories on the issue.
According to internal documents obtained by the Star, the national library’s staff said there was a “deliberate, systematic exclusion of Indigenous and non-white communities and perspectives” on some of the agency’s web pages.
The Parks Canada review doesn’t inspire much confidence, given that it is not looking at biographies of people such as Laurier, said Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice.
“To not include Laurier in that list of review is extremely frustrating and disappointing, and makes one question the whole review process, as well as what criteria they use to determine what’s up for review and what’s 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 pointed out that they had no idea that reviews of these designations were even happening.
“Parks Canada needs to make sure that the public knows, in multiple languages, across the country,” Go said. “If you’re not doing that, it means really, truly, you are not living up to your responsibilities.”
Blackstock believes the delay in updating the designations — especially someone like Campbell Scott, who was flagged years ago — is a “deliberate choice.”
She pointed to her own work in recent years with Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Marie Wilson, historian John Milloy, Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery and others to develop historically accurate plaques for several individuals buried 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 Indian Affairs Department, where he “oversaw the assimilationist Indian residential school system for Aboriginal children, stating his goal was to ‘Get rid of the Indian problem.’ ”
Parks Canada’s delay in reviewing its own material is a “deliberate choice” with no rationale, Blackstock said.
“My bottom line is, what the heck were they doing during the pandemic?” she said. “Here was a project for them.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant