Ontario deletes 'offensive' posts from internal employee debate over John A. Macdonald statue removal

The Ontario government has deleted comments deemed offensive from an internal social media platform that were posted during a debate over the City of Victoria's decision to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.

Public servants warned against 'inappropriate' posts on internal social media platform Yammer

A statue of John A. Macdonald was wrapped in foam and strapped to a flat-bed truck in Victoria, B.C., on Aug. 11. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

The Ontario government has deleted comments deemed offensive from an internal social media platform that were posted during a heated debate over the City of Victoria's decision to remove a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.

A spokesperson for the province's Treasury Board Secretariat said Ontario public servants were also warned by the Inclusion and Diversity Office to refrain from "inappropriate posts" on the internal Yammer social media platform. 

"Recently, we were made aware of some Yammer comments that did not correspond with Ontario Public Service values and workplace culture," said Kate Vrancart, a spokesperson for the Treasury Board Secretariat, in an emailed statement. "The offensive posts have been removed."

Yammer is used internally by Ontario public servants "to share work-related stories and ideas, and to create a more innovative and inclusive public service," said Vrancart.

"The Ontario Public Service is committed to maintaining an inclusive, diverse, equitable and respectful workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment," she said.

Discussion sparked by statue removal

The Victoria city council voted 7-1 this summer to remove the statue of Macdonald from the steps of City Hall. The statue was removed on Aug. 11.

CBC News obtained a transcript of the Yammer conversation which went on for at least two days beginning Aug. 13 after a public servant with the ​Ministry of Health posted a link to a story about the statue's removal with the comment, "revisionist history?"

The conversation included comments questioning the need for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and suggesting the Sixties Scoop was good thing because Indigenous children would have been "left to die" without it.

A financial analyst with the Ministry of Health in Kingston wrote it was "wrong to try to rewrite history" through the "lense" of the present.

"Just because you remove the statue does not change the world," the analyst wrote.

That view was supported by a registration service representative in Ontario's land registry office in Thunder Bay.

"It's not fair to view Macdonald, the founder of our country, through a social justice lense," the representative wrote.

"It was not good vs. evil. It was not oppressor vs. victim. It was two sides going at it with one eventually becoming victorious ... If you asked me, the real question is: who won?"

'I think re-writing history is OK'

The transcript of the Yammer debate revealed that these views were outnumbered by public servants who said the move was appropriate.

"I think re-writing history is OK ... we can come to a better understanding of the history that actually happened," wrote a manager of enterprise web development with the Treasury Board Secretariat in Toronto.

"What about Indigenous people who lived at the same time as them? If we don't consider their perspectives are we really viewing history in the context of the time?"

Sir John A. Macdonald is shown in an undated photo. (National Archives of Canada/CP)

A research advisor in the anti-racism directorate of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Toronto said re-examining the past was the best way to prevent history from repeating.

"If we continue to view history and judge it by the metrics of its time, we do not make any progress," the advisor wrote.

The debate took a darker turn after someone raised the issue of historical transgressions committed against Indigenous Peoples, including residential schools and the Sixties Scoop — both cases where the state removed Indigenous children from their families.

The Thunder Bay land registry worker said the Sixties Scoop was a good thing.

"Nothing leaves me more incredulous...That non-Aboriginals must now atone for having committed the great sin of caring for children who would have otherwise been left to die as their own people neglect them," wrote the worker.

This brought a rebuke from the web development manager.

"What you have written is so egregiously wrong, so contrary to the values of the [Ontario Public Service], of our province, and of contemporary Canada, that it is clearly impossible to continue this discussion as there is no common ground," said the manager.

Ottawa recently reached a settlement agreement with Sixties Scoop survivors that sets aside $750 million for all status First Nations and Inuit children placed into foster care or adopted by a non-Indigenous parent between 1951 and 1991

'End this self flagellation'

The Yammer conversation also veered into a debate over reconciliation.

"If Indigenous people find the commemoration of a historic figure who promoted genocide against their people to be offensive, then as a gesture ... that commemoration should be removed from the public sphere. Reconciliation should be Indigenous-led," wrote a senior advisor at Indigenous Affairs.

"When does reconciliation truly happen or do the colonizers have to pay the price through disrespect and endless mea culpa ad aeternum? When do we all start to take responsibility for ourselves, end this self flagellation…?" wrote the financial analyst.

A recent poll suggests Canadians are divided in the debate over the legacy of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, as historical evidence now suggests he used starvation as a weapon to clear the Prairies of Indigenous Peoples.

In a poll released Thursday by the Angus Reid Institute, 55 per cent of 1,500 people surveyed online said they opposed Victoria's decision to remove the statue. The Angus Reid poll was based on an online survey held Aug. 21-24. The poll gave no indication if any self-identified Indigenous people were included in the survey. 

"Canadians are terrific at compromise and I am confident we can work together to resolve this issue if the will is to do so. It goes far beyond Victoria," wrote a policy advisor with Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs in Guelph, during the Yammer debate.



Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him