Last month, the Board of Governors of Ryerson University announced that the University would be dropping the name Ryerson. It was acting on the apparently unanimous recommendation of a task force commissioned December 2020 to hold hearings, collect materials and report on the life and influence of Egerton Ryerson, after whom the University was named. The task force did all those things, although it seems at least some of its members may already have made up their minds. When an on-campus statue of Egerton Ryerson was vandalized and removed part way through the life of the task force, its co-chairs issued a statement saying that there might be regrets among those who wanted the statue removed that they could not be there when it was toppled, hardly a neutral statement.  

Along with much bafflegab about principles of commemoration, the task force report did include some positive comments about Ryerson and his relationship with the Ojibway. But it highlighted ten comments by “community members,” not one of which was positive and some of which made unfounded accusations. Most attested to pain, such as: “We cannot continue to celebrate Ryerson in the faces of those who are wounded.” The University’s leaders should have addressed those hurts, but did not. 

Although the task force conceded that Ryerson was not “the architect” of the residential school system, it repeated other accusations against him as if they were true. Yet—something that should be of critical interest in a university—a long record of scholarly publications about Ryerson by serious researchers, extending from 1937 to 2021, yield no evidence to implicate him. These include a two-volume Life and Letters (by C.B. Sissons) 1937, 1947), a one-volume biography (Clara Thomas, 1959), a biography of Ryerson’s closest Ojibway friend (Donald Smith, 1988), a book on his connections with the Mississaugas (Donald Smith, 2013), plus a history of residential schools (Jim Miller, 1996). A substantial master’s thesis and two papers based on it reported on the voluntary, bilingual schools that Ryerson did support, which involved no forcible taking away of children from their parents (Hope MacLean, 1978, 2002 and 2005). MacLean concluded: “How different the whole system of Native education in Canada might have been if that experiment had continued.”  

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reported in 2015, did not blame Ryerson for the residential schools; nor did its chair, Murray Sinclair, when he gave a faculty lecture at Ryerson a year later. But the accusations against Ryerson are now both widespread in social media and uncritically repeated in television and newspaper accounts.  

In January 2018, Ryerson University leaders had attempted to mollify students about the statue of Ryerson then still standing on the edge of the campus by placing a plaque next to it. This would, it was said, “contextualize his role in the creation of Canada’s residential school system, which was devastating to Indigenous people in Canada.” Yet the plaque repeated the accusations as if they were true.  

In a university, academic standards and respect for primary sources should be paramount. But they have been missing from action throughout these discussions at Ryerson. The residential school system instituted by the Canadian government in 1883 bears no resemblance to the schools Egerton Ryerson supported in the 1840s and 1850s. Nor can he have fought its introduction: he died in 1882. Moreover, its worst aspects came much later: making attendance mandatory, in 1920, and giving over guardianship of the children to the principals of the schools from their parents.  

The University has failed utterly to acquaint its students with who Egerton Ryerson was and what he did that was so positive for Indigenous peoples. Nor has it addressed the distress described by Indigenous students evidently persuaded by false information that he was responsible for the school system that causes them such pain.  

There is a great desire for “reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, but it can’t happen without truth, which requires looking at facts. Yet facts are hard things to come by these days. Academics who do not accept the quasi-official narrative about Ryerson are terrified to speak out, especially the untenured, short-term instructors of which Ryerson has many.  

 It is therefore not surprising that many Ryerson students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are not aware that Egerton Ryerson:  

  • lived with the Ojibway people and learned to speak Ojibway; 
  • assisted them with economic development, sharing his own farming skills (he was a farm boy) once they had decided that farming was the way to a decent life, given that they had lost much of their land and fishing grounds; 
  • * actively supported their land claims; 
  • promoted the careers of Ojibway leaders who were both Methodist ministers, as he was, and elected chiefs; 
  • * nominated one leader, Sacred Feathers, to be the Western superintendent of Indian Affairs in Canada West (Ontario). Yes, an Indigenous person was to be in charge of the area! 

If the Indigenous students, staff and faculty at Ryerson University knew what Ryerson had done for and with the Ojibway of his time, they could have walked past the statue of him with a smile and a wave, grateful that he at least had supported them when so few others did. 

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