Lynn McDonald: Get the facts right before condemning the past

Renaming advocates all got it wrong about J.S. Woodsworth, Henry Dundas and Egerton Ryerson

Author of the article:
Lynn McDonald,  Special to National Post
Published Mar 10, 2023  

The City of Toronto’s decision to rename Dundas Street probably helped the then Ryerson University administration to decide on its renaming — it was well along the way. The renaming forces at Ryerson, in turn, likely inspired a University of Toronto student to call for the renaming of Woodsworth College, founded in 1974 in honour of James Shaver Woodsworth on the centenary of his birth.

This proposed renaming, which appeared to go nowhere, appeared in a student newspaper, The Innis Herald. The 2020 opinion piece by Marloes Streppel denounced Woodsworth for his (supposed) support of residential schools and the “forced relocation of approximately 150,000 Indigenous children,” with their “severe neglect, sexual and physical abuse, and starvation.” Streppel’s op-ed, “James S. Woodsworth: A man to remember, never to glorify,” even had Woodsworth consider “cultural genocide” to be “satisfactory,” “from the white man’s standpoint.”

The trouble is that she based some of her remarks on an article by a different Woodsworth — Joseph Francis (J.F.) Woodsworth, principal of the Edmonton Residential School from 1925 to 1946. His article, “Problems of Indian Education in Canada,” appeared in a book, The North American Indian Today, 1939, which includes not a reference to J.S. Woodsworth, or Egerton Ryerson for that matter, in its 361 pages. Moreover, J.F. Woodsworth himself questioned the residential school system in his article:

“I have often been possessed of a sense of guilt in going into the Indian home or tepee and taking little children from that home, sometimes at bedtime hour, when the mother should be putting her child to rest for the night, and in rushing with my load of children into the night miles away, to put them into my school. It is true that they trusted me and were in a way willing for the children to go — but it was not essentially right. Yet the bulk of our Indian youth is at present in residential schools. These schools may be efficient, but we must not sacrifice the spirit and souls of these people, to say nothing of the joy of home and children, upon the altar of efficiency.”

Both Woodsworths were Methodist ministers, but had nothing else in common. J.S. Woodsworth was a leading advocate for welfare reform, the right of workers to unionize, and the first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, later called the New Democratic Party. In the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, he went to jail briefly for seditious libel, notably for quoting the Book of Isaiah: “They will build houses and inhabit them.” What a subversive housing policy!

Streppel went on to describe J.S. Woodsworth as “racist” for his book “Strangers Within Our Gates: or, coming Canadians,” 1909, for classifying people according to their “race and country of origin.” Given that the book is about immigrants, that would seem to be the point. It gives a sympathetic account of the difficulties non-British immigrants experience in Canada.

It is troubling to see a university student so inept at reference checking, but the president of Victoria University (University of Toronto), Dr. William Robins, was just as inaccurate in 2021 in calling for the renaming of Victoria University’s Ryerson residence and Ryerson scholarships. Robins had Ryerson proposing “residential schools,” a term he never used, “to “train students to become agricultural labourers.” Yet Ryerson’s proposal was for “industrial schools” to teach Indigenous youth who wanted to learn farming. He looked to their becoming “overseers of some of the largest farms in Canada,” or “industrious and prosperous farmers on their own account.” He also set out an academic program far beyond what “agricultural labourers” would require: English, arithmetic, elementary geometry, geography, general history, natural history, agricultural chemistry, writing, drawing, vocal music, religion, morals and book-keeping (for farm accounts). The summer program would have more reading and vocal music, with the natural history of the plants, vegetables, trees, birds and animals of the country, with its geography and history.

The year 2024 will mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of Woodsworth College. Might we hope for a real celebration there, and the continued running of Dundas streetcars? The one Dundas name I would like to see removed — and it would not be costly — is Dundas Square. It should be renamed “Ryerson Square,” which could not happen until people realize how they were hoodwinked into blaming Ryerson for what others did in the residential school system. He supported rather the voluntary, bilingual schools Indigenous leaders and parents wanted. He was honoured by an Ojibway chief, who called him “brother” and gave him an Ojibway name. Dundas Square is close to where Canada’s first teacher training college stood, established by Ryerson, the founder also of free public education in Canada, when it was a revolutionary idea.

Special to National Post

Lynn McDonald is professor emerita at the University of Guelph, a former MP and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

1 reply
  1. Anita Dermer
    Anita Dermer says:

    Kudos to Lynn McDonald for once again exposing the low standards of academic scholarship tolerated in the service of political correctness. Many readers may remember comedienne Gilda Radner’s fictional character, Emily Litella. Emily delivered televised editorials of outrage about various issues in the news, issues which she always managed to get wrong, e.g., hearing calls to “stop violence” she heard “stop violins” and was appalled at the notion of banning the instrument. When corrected, she would quickly end her rant with an embarrassed “Never mind.” I think it’s time for those who have wrongly impugned the characters and actions of Ryerson, Dundas and now J.S. Woodsworth to offer the same mea culpa and quietly exit stage left

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