Outrage over landmarks named for residential school leaders grows as Canada grapples with colonial legacy

After the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., calls to remove statues and rename landmarks linked to Canada’s colonial legacy are once again growing.

Across the country, landmarks once named for architects and key leaders of residential schools are adopting new identities as outrage over the disturbing discovery grows -- a small reconciliation for those who have long advocated to remove these reminders.

“Collectively, society wants to be better, I think,” Tayla Fern Paul, an activist who was taken into police custody during her fight to have a statue of Edward Cornwallis in Halifax removed, told CTV National News.

“People just shouldn’t be living with these markers of oppression and that’s exactly what they’re meant to do.”

On Tuesday, a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was quickly removed after Charlottetown city council unanimously voted to take it down in consultation with local First Nations leaders. Macdonald was an architect of the residential school system and led starvation tactics against Indigenous people in the Prairies.

In Toronto, a statue of Egerton Ryerson, another residential school architect, was doused in red paint and marked with graffiti reading, “Dig them up,” as calls to search all residential schools for unmarked graves grow.

Later Tuesday, Ryerson University's school of journalism announced it will rename two of its publications ahead of the new school year, dropping any reference to the man the school is named after.

Further west, in Calgary, the board of education passed a motion to rename Langevin School to Riverside School in an effort to dissociate from Hector-Louis Langevin – a move students had long been advocating for.

Yet, as recently as March, the CBE refused to hear a trustee’s motion on changing the school’s name, saying it wasn't an "emergent item."

“The tragic discovery in Kamloops and the reaction shared by Canadians has emphasized the importance of reconciliation and the need to demonstrate our commitment to the students we serve,” read a statement issued by the Calgary Board of Education Tuesday evening.

“Given these events, the Board has approved the school name change prior to the completion of its policy changes.”

Similarly, hundreds have now signed a petition urging the City of Edmonton to remove Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin’s name from the Grandin LRT station and remove a controversial mural in the station that depicts the residential school system.

But these are not the first calls for change when it comes to Canada’s historical references.

In 2017, the City of Calgary moved to change the name of Langevin Bridge to the Reconciliation Bridge. In 2018, a statue of Macdonald was taken down in Victoria, B.C., its artist admitting he was ashamed that he didn’t know about the history linking Macdonald to residential schools.

There have also been long standing petitions in Toronto calling for the city to rename Dundas Street, named after Henry Dundas, who delayed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, and for Ryerson University to take down the now-vandalized statue of the school’s founder.

But despite these calls, there is still some political hesitation.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, for example, spoke out Tuesday about what he calls an ongoing "cancel culture" in Canada, warning that most of the country’s founding fathers could one day be removed from the history books if it continues.

Instead, Kenney said Canadians should learn from our history, but also our failures.

Additionally, some historians believe the best course of action for statues is to put them into a museum, where they can be preserved but with additional context into the person’s life and actions.

Though historical context is still important, some historians have argued that these statues should be taken down given the legacy they now represent.

“These sorts of statues are supposed to represent, in a way, the past, but also the kind of society we want going forward and if they’re giving lessons that are only negative, especially to younger generations of people, then I think they need to come down,” David MacDonald, a political science professor at the University of Guelph, previously told CTV News Channel.

“These types of people, their time has come.”

- With files from Ben Cousins