Dr. Mohamed Lachemi, president
Ryerson University

Re: Egerton Ryerson

Dear Dr Lachemi and Colleagues
We, the undersigned, are greatly concerned about the attacks on Egerton Ryerson and proposal that his name be dropped by the university. We see him as an honourable, progressive leader in education, a Methodist minister  and friend and minister to many Ojibway people, including notable leaders. The accusation that he was an architect of the Indian residential school system that did so much harm, fails to differentiate between his support for what Ojibway leaders wanted and the system imposed, later, by the Canadian government.

As superintendent of Education, the newly appointed Ryerson  in 1846 drafted the Common School Act that established universal access to schooling in Ontario, plus teachers colleges and boards of education. By contrast, equivalent provision of schooling for all did not happen in the United Kingdom until the passage of Forster’s Education Act of  1870. Ryerson detractors do not dispute that contribution, but neither do they seem to see its significance.

Residential schools for Indigenous children were colonial policy, implemented in many British colonies, long before Ryerson’s Report of 1847. Quite apart from the fact that the schools in New France go back to the 17th century, there were schools for Indigenous children as early as 1823 in what is now Ontario. Schools identified in Florence Nightingale’s research, published in 1863, range  in their origins between 1823 and 1840.

Ryerson and Jones travelled together in England in 1836 where Ryerson supported his efforts to get land titles, and raise money for the missions. Ryerson nominated Peter Jones to become the Western superintendent of Indian Affairs for Canada West (Smith , 1988, 225-27), which did not happen.

Ryerson supported the Ojibway proposal for schools, Methodist schools, for Indigenous children, so that they could learn farming  and be successful in the settler economy. They recognized that hunting could no longer be a major source of livelihood, on account of the loss of  their vast lands by conquest, purchase and theft.

The schools he and they wanted were to be entirely voluntary, and would come under their own control when they had acquired the necessary skills and knowledge. These Ojibway leaders, as Indigenous peoples generally, wanted self-government, NOT control by settler authorities either in the U.K. or (later) by the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada.

However, by 1860, Ojibway leaders had come to the realization that the schools were not successful and wanted them closed. Their recommendation was not respected and the schools continued in operation. Nightingale’s research, with data collected by the Colonial Office, showed that the four schools were well built and in favourable, airy, locations. However, the rates of disease and death were high  in all 13  schools, day and residential, in her study, double those for English children of the same ages. The dates coincide with the recommendations of the Ojibway leaders, a decent start, but by the time her data were collected, in the 1850s, the disease and death rates were high (no statistical information is available on the early years).     Nightingale’s data show that a good start was made, for example, descriptions of, for Alnwick, “brick building properly ventilated, position elevated”: for Mount Elgin, “children remarkably healthy, institution stands in an elevated position on the banks of the River Thames, sleeping apartments well-ventilated.”

The worst aspects of the residential school system post-date Ryerson’s lifetime (1803-82): the establishment of the federal residential school system in  1883; the 1920 Indian Act amendment that made the schooling mandatory for children ages 7-16, and that of 1936  which gave legal guardianship of Indigenous children to the principals of the schools.

We strongly advise  that in considering the proposed name change, attention be given to research using documents from the time, and that due account be taken in the change in values and language from Ryerson’s time to our 21st century secular age.

Yours sincerely
Lynn McDonald, CM, PhD, LLD (hon), FRHistS, professor emerita

Please reply to lynnmcd@uoguelph.ca and please note that the letter will be sent again with further co-signers


MacLean, Hope. A Positive Experiment in Aboriginal Education: The Methodist Ojibwa Day Schools in Upper Canada 1824-1855.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXII, 1(2002):23-63.

MacLean, Hope. “Ojibwa Participation in Methodist Residential Schools in Upper Canada.” Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXV (2005):93-137. cjnsv25no1_pg93-137.pdf (brandonu.ca) author email Hopemaclean2003@yahoo.ca

Nightingale, Florence. “Sanitary Statistics of Native Colonial Schools and Hospitals.” Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, 1863.

Smith, Donald B. Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians. 2nd ed. University of Toronto Press 2013 [1988].

Stagg, Ronald and Patrice Dutil. ”The Imbecile Attack on Egerton Ryerson.” Dorchester Review
(3 June 2021): The Imbecile Attack on Egerton Ryerson – The Dorchester Review
Dorchester Review. Editor@dorchesterreview.ca July 2021)

Life and Journals of Kahkewaquonaby  (Rev Peter Jones), Wesleyan missionary. Toronto: A. Green, 1860.