An Ontario francophone school board held a symbolic book burning to advocate reconciliation and support Indigenous peoples. The board now regrets the move, which received sharp condemnation from leaders nationwide.
Radio Canada first reported the "flame purification" ceremony by the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence who burned some 30 books for "educational purposes." The board, which oversees elementary and secondary schools in southwestern Ontario, said the books' ashes were then used as fertilizer to plant a tree.
"We bury the ashes of racism, discrimination and stereotypes in the hope that we will grow up in an inclusive country where all can live in prosperity and security," according to a video about the book burning. More than 4,700 across 30 schools have since been destroyed or are in the process of being recycled, Radio Canada reported.
Lyne Cossette, the board’s spokesperson, told the National Post that they formed a committee with input from "many Aboriginal knowledge keepers and elders." They "participated and were consulted at various stages, from the conceptualization to the evaluation of the books, to the tree planting initiative."
"Symbolically, some books were used as fertilizer," wrote Cossette in an email.
The project, entitled Redonnons a la we're or "give back to the earth," was intended "to make a gesture of openness and reconciliation by replacing books in our libraries that had outdated content and carried negative stereotypes about First Nations, Métis and Inuit people."
The board constantly updates its school libraries, she said, with newer additions having "positive and inclusive messages about the diverse communities within our schools."
"We regret that we did not intervene to ensure a more appropriate plan for the commemorative ceremony and that it was offensive to some members of the community," wrote Cossette. "We sincerely regret the negative impact of this initiative intended as a gesture of reconciliation."
Asked about the book burning, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said it’s not up to non-Indigenous people "to tell Indigenous people how they should feel or act to advance reconciliation."
"On a personal level, I would never agree to the burning of books," he said.
Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet said, "we don’t burn books." He added: "We expose ourselves to history, we explain it, we demonstrate how society has evolved or must evolve."
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole chimed in, too, stating, "Reconciliation is important for all Canadians, and we have to have a system that does not discriminate."
Later, he tweeted: "A Conservative government is committed to reconciliation. But the road to reconciliation does not mean tearing down Canada. I strongly condemn the burning of books."
Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, said the gesture is a call for continued reflection. "I have seen negative images, cartoons, and presentations that do not respect the dignity of Indigenous communities," said Singh, "so I think we really need to change our approach to teaching our children."
A 165-page school board document includes analyzing all the books removed from shelves, Radio Canada reported.
Quebec journalist Andre Noel noted his book, Trafic chez les Hurons, was among those removed. In a Twitter thread, Noel wrote in French that removing his book "surprises me and seems excessive."
He writes, "But I fear that this controversy will distract us from the real scandal, which we have not yet fully measured: the destruction of Indigenous lands and the oppression of Indigenous peoples by Europeans and their descendants, including in Canada and Quebec."