As It Happens

Former Conservative MP says Trudeau 'trying to whitewash' history by renaming Langevin Block

The prime minister marked National Aboriginal Day by promising to strip the name of Hector-Louis Langevin, a proponent of residential schools, from a federal building.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, celebrate the newly named National Indigenous Peoples Day in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose National Aboriginal Day to announce the renaming of the Langevin Block, out of respect for Indigenous peoples.

The building's namesake, Hector-Louis Langevin, was a father of Confederation and a strong proponent of the Indian Residential School System. 

Langevin Block in Ottawa (Skeezix1000 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Indigenous leaders, including Independent MP Hunter Tootoo, Liberal MPs Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Don Rusnak, and NDP MP Romeo Saganash, had called on the prime minister to rename the building.

Saganash said in February: "Every day, at work, I remember the man who dreamed up the school I was sent to to purposely sever my connection to my family, my people and my nation." 

But a former Conservative MP Paul Calandra disagrees with the change. The Ontario Progressive Conservative nominee for Markham-Stouffville told As It Happens host Carol Off why. Here is a part of their conversation.

Paul Calandra: Look, I'm obviously sympathetic to how our First Nations feel, but at the same time, I think we have to understand that Langevin is an incredibly important figure in Canadian history, he was a father of Confederation, a giant when it came to helping ensure that the French culture, language and customs remained intact in a unified Canada. 

We certainly have to do a better job of understanding the positive things that Mr. Langevin brought about for Canada, but at the same time, we can reflect on the things that weren't so right for Canada, when viewed through the prisms or the lenses of today.

Carol Off: This is a quote from Mr. Langevin at the time.

He says: "The fact is that if you wish to educate the children you must separate them from their parents during the time they are being taught. 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 of civilized people." How do you think it is for Indigenous people to walk by that building?

PC: When you review through the lenses of modern-day Canada, that type of thinking has absolutely no place.

The last school was closed in 1996. We were still taking children out of their homes through the '60s and '70s. So there is a lot more that we have to learn about this and there are a lot of people, who through the years, had a role to play in this. And I think that by trying to forget or whitewash from history the good and the bad of our history, we do a disservice.

Look, I'm an Italian-Canadian. Are we supposed to forget about Mackenzie-King because he interned Italian-Canadians in the war? No. We learn from those mistakes. 

CO: When we put someone's name on a building, it's celebrating them, isn't it? One way of dealing with it, that's been proposed elsewhere, is that you change the name of the building, and you put a plaque about the person who's name was there before. You tell the story of what they did and what role they played.
Parliamentary Secretary Paul Calandra responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 3, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

PC: You'll not get an argument from me that we have to do a better job of helping people understand who the people that brought about Confederation were, the good and the bad parts of their time as political leaders in this country. I look at the decision made today, you know, this is a national historic site, this building. And the best we can come up with is The Prime Minister's Office? 

CO: The name could be a bit more interesting than that, I agree, or at least a tribute to somebody.

But this is something that Indigenous people have asked for. This isn't imposed by the government. For instance, [NDP MP] Romeo Saganash says, this isn't history, kids and youth continue to take their lives in First Nations communities, women and girls continue to disappear and get murdered in this country, the legacy lives on, and every time you are reminded of that ... these names are the ones that are still there. He would like to see that changed. 

PC: And I appreciate that. I think, though, that the way we can begin to solve these issues is by making real progress on some of the demands, on some of the real issues that are facing First Nations.

I look back at the election campaign, I see the promises that were made to First Nations by Prime Minister Trudeau, and I look at what he has accomplished, and I think that today's announcement is more of a distraction. 
Hector-Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation, and a prominent member of Sir John A. Macdonald's cabinet, proposed the creation of Indian Residential Schools as the most expeditious way to assimilate First Nations children into Euro-Canadian society. Indigenous leaders want his named removed from Langevin block in Ottawa, the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office. (Library and Archives Canada)

CO: Do you see a time when perhaps [former prime minister John A.] Macdonald's name will be challenged on plaques, buildings and our currency? 

PC: You raise an interesting point. This brings up so many different discussions. Through what lens will we judge people and their contribution to this country? Forty years, 50 years from now, people might be looking back at some of the decisions we made today, and they might look pretty stupid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Paul Calandra.