Ry­er­son, res­i­den­tial schools and com­pli­cated his­tory

Gov­ern­ments, in­sti­tu­tions sen­si­tive to of­fences com­mit­ted against First Na­tions, Inuit and Métis

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Thomas Walkom Thomas Walkom is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices

Should Toronto’s Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity change its name out of re­spect for Indigenous peo­ple? The Ry­er­son Stu­dents’ Union says yes (al­though there are some hints it may be chang­ing its mind). So does the school’s Indigenous Stu­dents As­so­ci­a­tion. Other stu­dents are said to be split.

The spe­cific de­bate is very modern. Gov­ern­ments and in­sti­tu­tions are sen­si­tive these days to charges that they have been ca­su­ally in­dif­fer­ent to of­fences com­mit­ted against First Na­tions, Inuit and Métis.

That sen­si­tiv­ity has been height­ened by the publi­ca­tion in 2015 of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­port. It re­veals, in en­cy­clo­pe­dic de­tail, the wrongs in­flicted on Indigenous fam­i­lies by the now-de­funct res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

So it should come as no sur­prise that the prac­tice of hon­our­ing peo­ple even re­motely con­nected with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of that sys­tem — in­clud­ing 19th-cen­tury ed­u­ca­tor Eger­ton Ry­er­son — should come un­der at­tack.

But the Ry­er­son con­tro­versy also raises more gen­eral ques­tions about the na­ture of his­tory. How should we re­mem­ber the past? Should we judge com­pli­cated his­tor­i­cal fig­ures against the moral stan­dards of the modern world? Should we judge them at all? Or should we con­tent our­selves by try­ing to un­der­stand why they did what they did?

Eger­ton Ry­er­son was one such com­pli­cated fig­ure. He is can­on­ized today as the founder of On­tario’s uni­ver­sal public­school sys­tem. But he was also a dif­fi­cult man whose views were al­ways firmly held (even when they con­tra­dicted them­selves) and who was rou­tinely, and not al­ways un­fairly, ac­cused of hypocrisy.

His mo­tives were in part Chris­tian. He was a de­vout Methodist min­is­ter. But, as his­to­rian Ali­son Pren­tice has pointed out, Ry­er­son and other “school pro­mot­ers” were also most prac­ti­cal.

A uni­ver­sal, com­pul­sory school sys­tem, they fig­ured, would re­duce crime by keep­ing lower-class urchins off the streets.

It would also al­low the state to in­cul­cate in these urchins sober mid­dle-class val­ues such as neat­ness and punc­tu­al­ity that might al­low them to work pro­duc­tively in On­tario’s bur­geon­ing cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy.

But Ry­er­son’s con­cerns also in­cluded the education of Indigenous chil­dren. As the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­port points out, by the 1840s, education re­form­ers — and some First Na­tions chiefs — were look­ing for a way to bet­ter pre­pare Indigenous chil­dren for a chang­ing world.

Ry­er­son’s pro­posed solution, which he out­lined in an 1847 let­ter, was to set up what he called in­dus­trial or man­ual schools aimed at teach­ing Indigenous chil­dren how to be­come farm labour­ers.

It’s worth not­ing, as the com­mis­sion re­port points out, that Ry­er­son was not alone in this. His ally and fel­low Methodist Kahke­waquon­aby, a chief of the Credit River Mis­sis­saugas, also ar­gued for such a scheme, say­ing that if it were to suc­ceed, Indigenous chil­dren would have to be sep­a­rated from their par­ents.

The com­mis­sion re­port de­scribes Kahke­waquon­aby, also known as Peter Jones, as a “hard-work­ing ad­vo­cate of the in­ter­ests of First Na­tions” who was try­ing to fig­ure out a way for Indigenous peo­ple to be­come eco­nom­i­cally in­de­pen­dent.

How­ever, the solution that he and Ry­er­son sup­ported even­tu­ally led to the trav­esty of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

In short, they were wrong. Should Ry­er­son be air­brushed from his­tory as a re­sult?

Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity’s solution to date has been to openly ac­knowl­edge both sides of his legacy — the good and the bad. That seems rea­son­able to me. I’m re­luc­tant to re­write his­tory. Had I been alive in 1916, I would have op­posed the de­ci­sion, taken in a fit of wartime pa­tri­o­tism, to re­name the On­tario city of Ber­lin as Kitch­ener.

But the de­ci­sion on whether to re­brand Ry­er­son Uni­ver­sity is not mine. It is ul­ti­mately the On­tario gov­ern­ment’s. And the gov­ern­ment will do, pre­sum­ably, what­ever de­liv­ers the least po­lit­i­cal grief.

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