At a time when South American countries are toppling Christopher Columbus statues and a growing number of southern U.S. states are taking down Confederate flags, the government should rename the building in Ottawa that houses the Prime Minister’s Office.
Reconciliation is a stretch under the Harper regime, but whoever wins the Oct. 19 election could make some big gestures in trying to heal the rift between First Nations and Canadian society.
The Langevin Block, which sits adjacent to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, is home to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council and the Harper government’s executive offices.
It is named after Hector-Louis Langevin, a Father of Confederation who held several ministerial posts in Parliament. He was also a father of the residential school system, instrumental in the deaths of more than 100,000 children and the generations of physical, cultural, and substance abuse that began in the residential schools and continue today.
A ‘final solution’
Langevin argued that Indigenous children needed to be under the watchful eyes of school administrators night and day.
“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,” he said in 1883. “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.”
His words show that Canada was afraid of the Indigenous population and knew that only a “final solution” would allow the colonial nation to grow unfettered.
As the old saying goes, you don’t shoot at dead rabbits.
Parallels in policy
“Place names may be used as symbols to mobilise and develop a political and historical consciousness of common identity,” write the authors of an article on post-apartheid South Africa, where the names of many buildings and streets have been changed or restored as part of the reconciliation process.
The colonial histories of South Africa and Canada have a lot in common, as South Africa’s apartheid system was based on Canada’s Indian Act. Each country has also had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
History is important, especially accurately marking the details of what transpired. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission recently brought to light what Indigenous peoples already knew: that the state funded their genocide in the form of residential schools. While we try to inform the Canadian public about the disdain for Indigenous peoples emanating from the country’s capital, the rest of the world can vividly see it. Entire Indigenous communities are left scrambling over basic needs such as water, food and homes.
Recognition and reconciliation aren’t priorities for the Harper government. Transparency is paramount — but only when it’s a one-way street, with information flowing toward Ottawa.
A powerful signal
In Calgary, where a bridge is named after Langevin, Mayor Naheed Nenshi is considering changing its name.
Despite issuing a formal apology for the residential schools, the Harper government doesn’t appear interested in rebranding the home of the PMO. “There are no plans to rename the Langevin Block,” stated Public Works Minister Diane Finley earlier this year.
Saying sorry only counts when you mean it. The way you show you mean it is through action. Perhaps Harper doesn’t want to look like he’s bargaining with terrorists.
The Langevin Block is located in the heart of Ottawa (Odawa), which is the capital of Canada (Kanata). Both names are Indigenous. It’s time to just admit there were several vibrant cultures here before Canada was an idea and acknowledge that they have survived.
A small, relevant step for the next Canadian government is to rename the Langevin Block, to continue the healing journey Canada now finds itself on.
It would be a powerful signal that a new government was serious about reconciliation if they selected an appropriate new moniker for the building and conducted their executive’s business out of the Louis Riel Block.