Federal officials raised doubts about accusations Hector-Louis Langevin was an architect of the residential school system for months before his name was ignominiously stripped from the prime minister's building, as the Liberal government acceded to complaints from Indigenous groups.
An internal briefing note says Langevin had a "complex" relationship with Canada's Indigenous peoples and even tried to spare the life of Métis leader Louis Riel, who was hanged in 1885 for leading a rebellion in Western Canada.
The Feb. 27 memo for Public Services Minister Judy Foote reveals the government grappling with a troublesome tangle of historical accuracy, Indigenous grievances over the tragedy of residential schools, and the symbolic significance of public building names.
"While he has been referred to in the media as an architect of the Indian residential school system, a historian at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada indicates that his relationship with Indigenous peoples is more complex," says the memo, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.
"Various histories and academic articles written on residential schools make no mention of his role or impact in the development or execution of the residential schools policy."
"Moreover, during the 1885 Northwest Rebellion and the subsequent trial of Louis Riel, he attempted to intercede with the prime minister for Riel's clemency and the commutation of his sentence."
The memo, signed by deputy minister Marie Lemay, was triggered after National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations wrote to Foote asking that the Langevin Block, the building at 80 Wellington St. in downtown Ottawa that houses the Prime Minister's Office, be renamed.
4 Indigenous MPs seek removal
Bellegarde's Feb. 6 letter said that "key architects of the devastating Indian residential school system include prominent leaders of the past such as Hector Langevin."
Ten days later, four Indigenous MPs also wrote to Foote, pressing for the removal of the name because "Langevin was also the creator of residential schools."
"We do not believe this way of thinking should be celebrated by naming a building after Langevin," said the letter, signed by the NDP's Georgina Jolibois, Liberal Don Rusnak, the NDP's Roméo Saganash and Hunter Tootoo, formerly a Liberal and now an Independent.
The memo to Foote suggested preserving the name of Langevin on the building, but adding a plaque about his contributions to Canada "while also highlighting the contested aspects of his legacy."
'It is reasonable to anticipate opposition.' — Memo from deputy public services minister
Lemay also said the name could be changed to that of an Indigenous person, a non-Indigenous person, a place or an event in Canada's past.
"It is reasonable to anticipate opposition from those who wish to preserve the commemoration of the name and contributions of Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, as well as support from those who want the name changed, including Indigenous groups," she wrote.
Government officials declined to release to CBC News material from the historian at Indigenous Affairs who is cited in the memo as unable to find evidence of any role Langevin played in establishing residential schools.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's comprehensive 2015 final report into residential schools, however, does trace their establishment back to Langevin, who as public works minister in 1883 allocated $43,000 for the federal government's first three industrial schools for Indigenous boys.
"If you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated," Langevin told the House of Commons at the time, comments reproduced in the report that have angered Indigenous groups.
"If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages."
The Canadian Encyclopedia also describes Langevin as "one of the original architects of the residential schools system, which was designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture."
Some historians, though not discounting a role for Langevin, have argued that the true architect of the residential school system was Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister.
Echoes of Macdonald's speech
Langevin's offensive speech about savages appeared to echo a Commons speech from Macdonald, who told MPs two weeks earlier: "When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read or write."
One historian has said Langevin is "taking the fall" for the more culpable Macdonald, whose name in recent years was bestowed on a newly renovated Ottawa public building just two blocks from the prime minister's office. Macdonald's name is common on buildings and monuments across Canada.
Foote's spokesman Anthony Laporte did not answer a series of questions from CBC News about the memo, but issued a statement saying, "We heard from many Indigenous people — including our colleagues in the House — about how much pain is associated with that name on the building."
"This is an acknowledgement that we are listening and we will move past this dark chapter of history together," he said, referring to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's June 21 announcement that the Langevin Building would henceforth be the "Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council."
Bellegarde says the briefing note to Foote shows how much more education Canadians need about their past.
"It's well established in the historical record that Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the architects of the residential schools," he said in an email.
"This note points to the need for more public education around our true history. We believe changing the name of the building is important and worthwhile."
Sen. Murray Sinclair, formerly chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, declined to comment on the memo.
Indigenous MPs Saganash, Jolibois and Robert-Falcon Ouellette did not respond to requests for comment.
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