Don’t erase Ry­er­son’s name


The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

Ladies and gentle­men of the jury of the court of pub­lic opin­ion:

You are here to pass judg­ment on Eger­ton Ry­er­son, the fa­mous 19th-cen­tury Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal re­former, ed­u­ca­tor and cler­gy­man who died in 1882 and is best re­mem­bered to­day for the post-sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tion in Toronto that bears his name: Ry­er­son Univer­sity.

Eger­ton Ry­er­son stands ac­cused by the school’s stu­dent union of be­ing the ar­chi­tect of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem that led to so much suf­fer­ing, abuse and death in Canada’s Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

His ac­cusers have pro­nounced him guilty and, since they can’t pun­ish him, pro­pose re­mov­ing his statue from the univer­sity’s cam­pus and ex­pung­ing his name from the school.

His sen­tence is to be stripped of his post­hu­mous hon­ours — and for­got­ten.

In de­fend­ing Ry­er­son, we could cite his enor­mous, pos­i­tive and en­dur­ing in­flu­ence on Canada.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly, he founded On­tario’s mod­ern pub­lic school sys­tem that of­fers ed­u­ca­tion to all, re­gard­less of fam­ily rank or wealth.

We could ex­tol his con­tri­bu­tion to On­tario pol­i­tics — his ad­vo­cacy of a cen­trist path that es­chewed nar­row con­ser­vatism as much as the rad­i­cal­ism that fu­elled the vi­o­lent Re­bel­lion of 1837. Mod­er­ate, sen­si­ble pol­i­tics have gen­er­ally pre­vailed here ever since.

We could also point out that Ry­er­son Univer­sity stands where he es­tab­lished a school to ed­u­cate teach­ers.

Yet th­ese and other achieve­ments would be ir­rel­e­vant to the charges against him if they were le­git­i­mate. The ev­i­dence says the charges are false. It’s true that in 1847 Ry­er­son wrote a short re­port that called for the es­tab­lish­ment of live-in schools that would teach farm­ing skills to young, Indige­nous males to help them se­cure a place in a rapidly chang­ing econ­omy.

Many of Ry­er­son’s First Na­tions friends and col­leagues agreed with him on this ap­proach, which was based on con­cepts of ed­u­ca­tion cur­rent in Europe at that time.

Ry­er­son’s crit­ics say his views in­flu­enced the cre­ation of the res­i­den­tial schools and so he bears some re­spon­si­bil­ity for their calami­tous im­pact.

But Ry­er­son did not es­tab­lish, or­ga­nize or op­er­ate the fed­eral res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

His crit­ics have ev­ery right to iden­tify the flaws in his the­o­ries or ar­gue they in­formed the mind­set that un­der­pinned the res­i­den­tial schools.

To blame him for the evils in a sys­tem largely built and op­er­ated af­ter his death is as un­fair as blam­ing Charles Dar­win’s writ­ings on evo­lu­tion for the vi­cious so­cial Dar­win­ism of the Nazis.

More­over, fo­cus­ing on this as­pect of Ry­er­son’s ca­reer ig­nores the good things he ac­com­plished with Indige­nous peo­ple, and how they re­spected him.

In the 1820s, Ry­er­son worked with the Mis­sis­sauga First Na­tion at the Credit Mis­sion, where the city of Mis­sis­sauga stands to­day.

He learned their lan­guage. He formed a life­long friend­ship with the Mis­sis­sauga chief Kahke­waquon­aby (Pe­ter Jones) and even trav­elled to Bri­tain to de­fend Mis­sis­sauga land claims.

So es­teemed was he by the Mis­sis­sauga that they gave him an Indige­nous name: “Cheechalk,” or “Bird on the Wing.”

All this is rea­son enough, we sub­mit, for the court of pub­lic opin­ion to urge the univer­sity to stand by this great man’s other name: Ry­er­son.

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