Why a name change for Ryerson University is the only path to reconciliation

Egerton Ryerson is no more. At least, his statue is no more. Its head was lopped off and tossed in Toronto Harbour after the statue itself was pulled off its pedestal by protestors on Sunday. The drama played out on social media for all of Toronto to see. 

Ryerson University president Mohamed Lachemi was quick to acknowledge the anger of the protestors in a statement Sunday evening and to officially announce that the statue will not be restored or replaced. 

The recent discovery of the remains of 215 residential school children in Kamloops, BC, has re-ignited a national conversation about Canada’s residential school shame and Ryerson University’s – which takes its name from one of the architects of the system – place in it.

Is a name change for the university next? It seems inevitable. 

An official recommendation on that is not due until September. That’s when a special task force set up to “Examine and more fully understand Egerton Ryerson’s relationships with Indigenous Peoples, education and the residential school system, and consider how that legacy aligns with Ryerson University’s values and mission,” is expected to submit its report to Lachemi. But if the statue is not worth keeping neither, it seems, is the university’s name. The faculty have already taken to amending the signatures on their email correspondence to X University.

The university administration has been endeavouring to do its part to reconcile the controversial past of its namesake and his role in the creation of the Indian Residential School system. 

An Aboriginal Education Council made up primarily of Indigenous staff and students was formed by the university in 2010 in recognition of “the unique status and concerns of Aboriginal peoples” and “that a unique response is necessary if Aboriginal peoples’ post-secondary education, training and employment outcomes are to be improved.”

Part of the council’s mandate is to increase employment opportunities and expand Indigenous programming at Ryerson and “participate in the process of developing a new relationship of truth and reconciliation.” That goal involves fostering a positive environment for learning.

In that vein, the council weighed in on the issue of Ryerson’s statue in 2018. A plaque was unveiled at the foot of the bronze to acknowledge Ryerson’s involvement in the development of Canada’s Indian Residential School system. 

The plaque reads in part: “In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that children in the schools were subjected to unthinkable abuse and neglect, to medical experimentation, punishment for the practice of cultures or languages and death.”

Not everyone was moved by the council’s decision. The university’s student’s union, for one, has been calling for the removal of the statue and change in the university’s name since 2017.

Image of Egerton Ryerson from “Canada: an encyclopædia of the country (1898).

Ryerson, the man not the university, occupies a complex space in the nation’s history. 

On the one hand, he was a progressive, opposed to the Family Compact that ruled like an autocracy in Upper Canada before the Rebellion of 1837. He was an advocate for free public education. There is also some historical evidence to suggest that he was considered a friend by Indigenous peoples. The Mississaugas of the Credit gave him the name “Cheechock” or “Chechalk,” which translates to “Bird on the Wing.” 

On the other hand, Ryerson was a devout Methodist who held to the religious view that a woman’s place was in the home – he did not believe young girls needed to be educated beyond elementary school. His views of Indigenous peoples were similarly coloured by religion.

It has been pointed out that Ryerson did not actually oversee the residential school system. And that it was not officially established until after confederation and Ryerson’s death in 1882.

But it’s also true that the residential schools, or mission schools and boarding schools, as they were also called, predated confederation by some five decades.

There’s also no doubt that the aim of the schools was cultural genocide – and that it was carried out over multiple generations for more than 100 years.

In 1847, the Indian Affairs Branch of the government asked Ryerson to write a report on the best methods of operating residential schools. The report was part of a larger document entitled Statistics Respecting Residential Schools. At the time, Ryerson held the position of Chief Superintendent of Education in Upper Canada. Ryerson recommended that Indigenous students continue to be separated from their parents and educated in agriculturally based religious schools.

In his letter to George Vardon, assistant superintendent of Indian Affairs, Ryerson writes of Indigenous peoples that: “nothing can be done to improve and elevate his character and condition without the aid of religious feeling.”

He added that, “It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings.”

Industrial schools opened to serve “neglected and problem children.” Students were to be trained in agriculture for two to three hours each day (and eight to 12 hours a day during the summer). The rest of the day was to be spent studying academics, including history, geography, writing, music, bookkeeping and “agricultural chemistry.”

And while residential schools were associated with horrific stories of physical and emotional abuse, less discussed has been the role industrial schools played in providing the free labour that ultimately facilitated Canadian expansion westward. In which case, we should also be talking about reparations when it comes to Ryerson’s role in Canada’s residential schools legacy. For the university, a lot is riding on the reputation it’s staked on reconciliation. Ryerson’s head, meanwhile, has turned up at 1492 Land Back Lane.


Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content