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B.C. Conservative leader defends residential school comments as criticism grows

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The leader of the Conservative Party of BC is defending a social media post about parental rights denounced as insensitive, hurtful and political on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

As Indigenous leaders were expressing optimism that the province is at a turning point in addressing the dark and complex history of residential schools, John Rustad had posted on the platform formerly known as Twitter, that “we remember what happens when the Canadian government thinks it's better at raising children than parents.”

The statement has received predominately negative responses, and a spokesperson from the Squamish First Nation expressed dismay at the timing.

“I feel for the ones that are the survivors we still have with us today and this is a day I hope they aren't on social media,” said Wilson Williams.

He pointed out that the third annual holiday brings back many painful memories for families grappling with intergenerational trauma that’s stemmed from the mistreatment of Indigenous children at residential schools – as well as colonialism and ongoing racism some children still experience in the classroom.

“It goes to show just when you think we took three steps forward, we maybe took a full step forward and a half step back,” said Wilson. “The insensitivity of it is hurtful.”

The premier and many of B.C.’s political leaders, including mayors and MLAs, issued press releases or made brief social media statements in support of the work of education and reconciliation but largely avoided making speeches and stayed out of the spotlight.

POLITICAL FIRESTORM

The governing B.C. New Democrats have been staunch supporters of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) education, which has come under fire from right-wing and parental rights groups that are increasingly clashing over issues of gay and trans rights, and how much children should be taught and when.

“He’s just looking for clicks and likes and retweets,” said NDP MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca, Ravi Parmar. “Why of all days do you bring in politics, do you bring in hate and divisions on these types of issues?”

The education critic for the official opposition shared disgust about the timing of the message.

“We have every other day of the year to politicize our views, to talk about other subjects,” said BC United MLA, Elenore Sturko. “It’s not acceptable to misappropriate the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation for any other purpose. It’s disrespectful, it shows a lack of empathy.”

Sturko’s party has come under some criticism for voicing support for parental rights, but she insisted that they are supportive of maintaining anti-bullying aspects of the lessons while listening to and addressing parents’ concerns about providing feedback on the age appropriateness of the coursework. 

RUSTAD DOUBLES DOWN

Rustad was in Vancouver on Sunday and agreed to an on-camera interview with CTV News, where he was unapologetic about linking the somber national holiday with his views on parental rights.

“When I look at Orange Shirt Day, it was founded on taking away parents’ rights, Indigenous parents' rights to raise their children -- the government believed that they knew better,” he said, making loose reference to the story of the B.C. woman who wasn’t allowed to wear an orange shirt to school as a child. 

When CTV News suggested that conflating residential schools, where many children were emotionally and physically abused, malnourished, mistreated and even died, with an educational resource in schools, he said he’d spent a lot of time advocating for reconciliation and listening to First Nations members in his years as aboriginal relations minister.

“I will always stand against residential schools, I have historically and I always will,” Rustad went on to say. “It's absolutely tragic, but at the core of that was taking away parents' rights. That was the core of what happened: government made a decision that they raise those children, they felt that they knew better to raise those children than parents.”

When asked whether he had the same compassion for gay or trans children struggling or facing bullying in school, Rustad referenced the injustice in the film “The Imitation Game,” about a gay British cryptologist who was persecuted, and said it was wrong that “people that were trans or gay, that have that lifestyle, were thrown in jail.”

He also insisted he didn’t endorse the anti-SOGI rallies that saw verbal and physical clashes with counter-protestors, before coming back to his focus.

“It's not right to take rights away from one person to give rights to another person,” Rustad said. “We need to be able to be a very inclusive society and that means we need to be a very inclusive society and say that parents have rights too.”

Rustad’s B.C. Conservatives now have official party status in the legislature, which means his opinions and beliefs – some of them polarizing and controversial -- will have more prominence than they did before.

Parmar remarked that, “If this is the type of stuff he’s planning on doing now as the B.C. Conservative Party in the B.C. legislature, we’re going to be in for a rough ride.”

The fall session begins on Wednesday.

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