Saturday, July 08, 2017

Renaming Ryerson University would achieve nothing

A certain group of holier-than-thou politicos are campaigning to change the name of Toronto's Ryerson University, on the grounds that it glorifies a 19th century Canadian statesman who, they argue, was instrumental in establishing the reviled residential schools system for indigenous Canadians.
Egerton Ryerson is considered a founding father of Canada. He was a Methodist preacher and missionary, but his main achievements came in the field of education. He campaigned for free, compulsory early education, and set up a professional teacher-training school. He worked for standard school inspections and uniform textbooks. He was essentially, as the plaque under his statue at the University campus says, "founder of the school system of Ontario".
Now, Ryerson, a product of his colonial Victorian times, also believed in all-year live-in schools to teach agricultural skills to native children - what he termed "industrial schools" - although he was not personally involved in setting up the iniquitous system of residential schools that later took hold (unlike Hector-Louis Langevin, whose name was recently pulled from the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office).
As the University's own website puts it: "While Egerton Ryerson supported education, he also believed in different systems of education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. These beliefs influenced the establishment of the Indian residential school system that has had a devastating impact on First Nations, M├ętis and Inuit people across Canada."
It is right and good to be upfront about this aspect of Ryerson's legacy. But it is equally right and good to stress his positive contributions, and revisionism and attempts to expunge him from history are not helpful to.anyone. As an indigenous student at Ryerson has (bravely) commented, "It's the history of the school. You do not have to agree with it, but it is the history of what people back then were thinking. It is a reminder … No one's hands are clean when it comes to the history of Canada". I couldn't have said it better.

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