Lynn McDonald: Ryerson’s 1847 Report on “Industrial Schools”: Is It the “Smoking Gun” Linking Him to Residential Schools?

Denouncers of Egerton Ryerson like to cite his 1847 report on “industrial schools” as the ”smoking gun” that links him to the horrible residential school system established by the federal government in 1883, the year after his death. That report, a handwritten letter, was prepared at the request of the assistant superintendent general of Indian Affairs, George Vardon. Ryerson never used the term “residential schools” in the report, but saw, given the practical, agricultural skills to be acquired, that  “the pupils should reside together.” “Industrial schools” for agriculture made sense also given that agriculture was by far the largest industry in Ontario at the time. 

The request was for Ryerson to give his ideas as to “the best method of establishing and conducting “Industrial Schools for the benefit of the Aboriginal Indian Tribes.” It must be understood that these schools were to be voluntary, for a portion only of the Indigenous population, and that for only part of their education, presumably the last stage, to prepare them for jobs in agriculture and running their own farms. 

There was academic  as well as practical content in the curriculum, namely: 

  • reading and the principles of the English language, arithmetic, elementary geometry, or knowledge of forms, geography and the elements of general history, natural history and agricultural chemistry, writing, drawing and vocal music, book keeping (especially in reference to farmers accounts) , religion and morals. 

In summer, there would be more farm  and less academic work, but the latter should include “exercises in reading and vocal music, natural history of the plants, vegetables, trees, birds, and animals of the country in the first place, together with its geography and history, book-keeping and farmers’ accounts.” Further, said Ryerson, natural history should be taught “by means of drawing as well as by oral instruction, and lessons from books in regard to the character and habits of birds and animals, and the growth, qualities and culture of plants, vegetables, etc.” (Indian Affairs, 1898). 

Lengthy hours of work were expected of the pupils—Ryerson was himself a farmer’s son, worked on his father’s farm, and knew what was needed in the summer season. He recommended payment per hour of the work done, a point ignored by critics. However, Indigenous pupils  were not paid for their work, either at the few (voluntary) industrial schools set up by the Methodists, nor the large number of the harmful federal residential schools. 

William Robins, president of Victoria University (University of Toronto), in his “presidential report” on Ryerson’s legacy, to justify dropping the Ryerson name, reduced his goal for the schools to making Indigenous pupils into “agricultural labourers ,” ignoring Ryerson’s   goal of  “working farmers.”  Some could become  indeed “prosperous farm owners and overseers of some the largest farms in Canada.” As well, Robins omitted the academic content recommended,” listed above, which went far beyond what one would expect for agricultural labourers. 

The Canadian Encyclopedia, in its updated entry on Ryerson (June 2021) mis-stated the request made to Ryerson as a “report on the best methods of operating residential schools.” It then mistakenly called the report “part of a larger document entitled Statistics Respecting Residential Schools,” omitting the fact that that document is dated 1898, and that Ryerson’s comments of 1847 had nothing to do with it ,as the printer noted.  

The 1847 Report is reprinted fully on this website in “Ryerson’s Writings.”