Indigenous leaders are calling on the government to change the name of Langevin block, the building across from Parliament Hill that houses the Prime Minister’s Office, because it is named after a strong proponent of the Indian Residential School system.
The building is named after Hector-Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation and a prominent member of Sir John A. Macdonald’s cabinet, who proposed the creation of these schools as the most expeditious way to assimilate First Nations children into Euro-Canadian society.
He served as secretary of state for the provinces when the country’s first residential schools were introduced.
Indigenous MPs, including Independent Hunter Tootoo and Liberal backbenchers Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Don Rusnak, and NDP MP Romeo Saganash, presented a united front Thursday, calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rename the building so that survivors of the schools would not be perpetually reminded of a man who “devastated their lives.”
Tootoo pointed to a speech Langevin made in Parliament in 1883, when he spoke to the virtues of these schools, as reason enough to strike his name from the building.
“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,” Langevin said in the speech to Parliament.
“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.”
Saganash said he is befuddled as to why Langevin’s name is still affixed to such an important government structure.
“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,” he said. “Don’t forget, every fall, most of the Indigenous communities across this country were emptied of their children because of that man.”
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Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Canada must face the “harsh truths” of its colonial past and remove the name of Langevin from the prominent building in the nation’s capital, all in the spirit of reconciliation.
“One of those truths is that key architects of the devastating Indian residential school system include prominent leaders of the past such as Hector Langevin,” Bellegarde wrote recently in a letter to Public Services Minister Judy Foote and obtained by CBC News.
“Launching a process to rename the building, in co-operation and consultation with Indigenous peoples, will signal a commitment to real change and aid in the healing required to renew the relationship between Canada and First Nations.”
Foote’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Tootoo said this is not an attempt to expunge Langevin from the historical record, or to prosecute a dead man for things he said more than a century ago.
“It’s not about rewriting history; it’s about writing a more inclusive history,” the Nunavut MP said.
“I don’t think we’re putting anyone on trial here. We just want to make things more appropriate, and I think that’s where we are in this day and age.”
Saganash added that survivors will not soon forget the man who conceived of the school system. “This is a symbolic, but meaningful, step that we need to take as a country.”
Ouellette, the Liberal MP for Winnipeg Centre, suggested the building be named after Louis Riel, himself a father of Confederation, and a folk hero for many Indigenous people.
The push comes after Calgary changed the name of a bridge, also named after Langevin, to “Reconciliation Bridge,” after a recommendation from city’s Aboriginal urban affairs committee.
Langevin held a number of key portfolios over his 40 years in colonial and Canadian politics, leaving the federal scene briefly after the 1873 Pacific Railway scandal, only to return as Macdonald’s Quebec lieutenant in the 1880s.
He was one of the few Quebec Conservatives to be re-elected after the Macdonald government ordered that Riel be hanged for his role in the North West Rebellion.