Don’t erase Ryerson’s name
THE SPECTATOR’S VIEW
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.