The Ryerson Affair: An Update

Professor Ronald Stagg judges the judges and finds them wanting

In 2020, both Victoria University, at the University of Toronto, and Ryerson University struck committees to “investigate” the relationship of Egerton Ryerson to particular minorities. The stated goal of the study was to determine if the universities should continue to be associated with such an individual. Both these groups condemned Ryerson as a “colonialist” who treated minorities badly. As a result Ryerson University is in the process of changing its name. Changing the name and rebranding may cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

The reports prepared by these committees ignored pertinent information and used half-truths, innuendo, and 21st century interpretations of 19th century terms to make their case. In so doing, they fouled the reputation of a man who single-handedly created the Ontario educational system, initiated teacher training, and created uniform standards for education. He was an individual who respected and promoted Indigenous inhabitants and fought for equal education for all.

The Victoria Research panel was quite small, with a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies doing the research. One member was a historian with a background in First Nations studies. Two others had an indigenous background, and the convenor was also from the religious studies department at the University of Toronto. None was a specialist in Canadian history.

The Victoria report, coming out of the institution that Egerton Ryerson founded, is the shorter and more directly to the point of the two. It focusses particularly on Indigenous education, though it does briefly mention what the committee members saw as the creation of separate schools for black students, handicapped students, and economically disadvantaged students. More will be said about these groups in the discussion below of the Ryerson report.

The Victoria report is really a condemnation of colonialist exploitation and neglect of indigenous aspirations in general, rather than simply an evaluation of Egerton Ryerson’s work and legacy. It points out that Ryerson established the Upper Canada Academy, later Victoria College, in 1830, as a non-denominations institution, with the goal of welcoming Indigenous students as well as non-Indigenous. The narrative details the Christian background of a few of the early Indigenous students, admits that there are no records of the backgrounds of most students who were admitted, but concludes nevertheless that few Indigenous students could have attended, “since Ryerson’s support for Indigenous students accessing higher education extended largely only to Christian males” and because the Academy “taught on Christian principles.” This supposition is hardly proof that indigenous students were discouraged by the institution’s religious tone. The report offers no evidence that anyone was turned away. While Ryerson believed that religion was an integral part of educating a moral population, this did not preclude any indigenous person who wanted a higher education from attending. It should be remembered also that, as historian-anthropologist Hope McLean, author of several works on Methodist education of First Nations inhabitants in the early to mid-19th century, has pointed out, a large portion of the indigenous population of southern Upper Canada identified as Christians by the 1830s. This whole discussion is framed a certain way in order to set up a “colonialist” Ryerson straw man.

The remainder of the report deals with the Industrial schools that Ryerson recommended for indigenous students. They were not residential schools in the sense of the federal residential schools set up 50 years later (and after Ryerson’s death) in the 1880s. But Ryerson’s detractors refer to those two schools, for which Ryerson recommended a curriculum, as “residential schools” in order to conflate the two and tar him with guilt by association. 

In the early 1840s, The British authorities in the colony had been trying to force or persuade the First Nations to abandon their ancestral lands and to move onto delimited reserves. In 1846, they held a meeting of chiefs and missionaries from central Canada West at Orillia to persuade the chiefs to concentrate their populations in specific locations where they could access education beyond what was offered in the mission schools in their communities. The chiefs rejected the idea of moving, but most enthusiastically endorsed the idea of schools, which the government agents and Methodist missionaries said would pave the way for indigenous inhabitants to learn new farming skills and perhaps even enter the professions. Most chiefs recognized that the days of hunting and fishing in the virgin wilderness were fast disappearing with increasing European settlement. Of the small number who rejected the idea of schools, most changed their minds after consulting their communities. A significant number even offered a portion of their annual treaty payments to finance the schools.

Egerton Ryerson, who was very busy designing a school system for the colony and did not attend the conference, was asked by a senior civil servant, George Vardon, to make suggestions for a curriculum for three planned schools only two of which were built. When pressed for an urgent answer, Ryerson dashed off a few suggestions based on his knowledge of the curriculum of the Hofwil School in Switzerland. The Victoria report misinterprets this as a betrayal of the plan advanced at the Orillia meeting, in favour of creating an agricultural servant class and taming the “uncivilized” indigenous population. In fact, in the mid-19th century the term “uncivilized” did not carry the negative connotations of today, but had the meaning “of a non-European culture.” Here the authors clearly reveal their bias, giving the most negative possible understanding of the term: “By ‘civilizing,’” they assert, “Ryerson meant converting Indigenous peoples to Christianity and to the modes of living of settler society, in keeping with the wider settler habit of denigrating, undermining, and ignoring the sophisticated and sustainable lifeways of Indigenous nations.” 

In fact, while Ryerson and Methodist educationists hoped that First Nations peoples would absorb more and more of Christian morality, they envisioned this happening by osmosis as indigenous students studied the Bible and other texts in the pious and disciplined environment of a school and in fellowship with fellow Christians. They did not believe in compulsion. A good discussion of this can be found in the works of Hope McLean. What Ryerson was proposing was not designed to create an underclass, but rather a type of education suited to a largely agrarian society, where the vast majority of male children would wind up working in agriculture. This was a type of education that would allow indigenous society to continue in the midst of a colony increasingly shaped by settlement.

FAR FROM SIMPLY training students to work on farms, Ryerson saw them becoming farmers as well, and even running the schools themselves. As a start to this, Ryerson secured the position as head one of the schools for his old friend Kahkewaquonaby, Peter Jones, chief of the Mississaugas, who was an ordained Methodist minister and a long-time advocate of schools such as Ryerson proposed. Jones spent his life campaigning for self-government and First Nations control of their lands. He would hardly have endorsed the schools had they been designed to create an underclass. At the same time, this education did not preclude indigenous students from accessing higher education, as had indigenous students assisted by Ryerson in the 1830s.

As further proof of the intent of these schools, it should be noted that George Vardon, a senior civil servant in Canada West — and who, as such, would not contradict government policy — sent Ryerson a follow-up letter urging him to hurry up with his report. Vardon wrote, “You are aware that there are numerous persons in the colony, though actuated by different motives, who will alike rejoice in the failure of a plan which tends to place the Indian on a footing of perfect equality with their White Brethren.”

This was Ryerson’s last involvement with the schools, which were run by the Indian Department under the Colonial Office in Great Britain. As superintendent of Education for Upper Canada (Canada West), his jurisdiction did not extend to the Industrial schools.

The Victoria report assumes throughout that the post-Confederation federal residential schools were simply an extension of the ones created by the colonial government in the late 1840s. Yet not only was their purpose different, but so was the whole setup of the schools. The colonial-era schools were not the only schools operating, but were supplemental to the already-existing mission schools, a combination of secondary school and apprenticeship. 

The schools with which Ryerson was involved were designed for older students who attended voluntarily [footnote: as were the later residential schools — Ed.], and were intended to build upon the foundation established in local mission schools. Students spoke their native languages, [footnote: it is becoming increasingly clear, through research that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has suppressed, that children at many later residential schools spoke, and were even taught in, their native languages. — Ed.] and were taught largely by teachers trained in the new Normal School, which Ryerson created, not by clergy. The religious instruction was more like Sunday school classes than the indoctrination of the federal schools. Students in those early schools were learning a marketable skill, not merely producing goods the sale of which would in turn finance the school. All of these are markedly different from the way many Canadians today understand the later federal residential schools.

‘The Victoria report is straightforward in its failure to connect Ryerson to the later federal system’

Overall, the Victoria report shows a lack of thorough research, and a blatant attempt to link Egerton Ryerson to the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. The report’s bias can be summed up in the words used by its authors: “[Ryerson’s] report endorsing residential schooling for Indigenous children was instrumental to the design of the [later residential] schools. More precisely, Ryerson’s recommendations that schools prepare students for agricultural labour jobs precipitated an Indigenous education system that consistently undermined and streamlined Indigenous students in ways that denied their creativity, their ability, and their promise, casting them into service roles for settler society.” 

But this is nonsense. Ryerson did no such thing.

The Victoria report is straightforward in its failed attempt to connect Ryerson to the federal school system and general mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. The Ryerson University Task Force report is more subtle, but equally designed to link Egerton Ryerson to the exploitation and denigration of Indians and other minorities.

RYERSON’S TASK FORCE was larger at 14 members, including students, staff, and faculty from Ryerson, and external members, several of whom were alumni. A sizeable proportion were indigenous or black. There was only one historian, an expert on modern Britain, but the Task Force employed a graduate student and two undergraduates to do research, and received presentations from historians familiar with Egerton’s life, and from others who had researched the topic. It is clear from the Task Force report that whoever wrote it (and that was never revealed) chose what to include in a most biased manner and interpreted it with a view to condemning Ryerson as a “colonialist” bent on destroying indigenous culture. 

The Ryerson report is 50 pages long, with diversions on “methodology” and a rambling historical background in Appendix D. The latter covers the lives of Ryerson and his friend Peter Jones, with a kind of “history” of indigenous education in Upper Canada (Canada West) and of residential schools. It provides a history of the Ryerson statue and various commemorations of Ryerson, and incongruously a history of “Black Lives Matter” in Canada and the United States. In the main, in all of this, it is not the facts that are the problem but rather their interpretation.

‘The Ryerson University report depicts Dr. Ryerson as one of a long line of cardboard cutouts of Euro-Canadians who ‘destroyed’ indigenous culture’

The report makes the critical point that Ryerson was not the architect of the federal system of residential schools as stated on the extra plaque that Ryerson University added beside the Egerton Ryerson statue in 2018, precipitating the widespread public attack on his reputation. 

Even so, the Report’s authors depict him as one of a long line of cardboard cutouts of Euro-Canadians who worked to destroy indigenous culture. It uses innuendo to suggest that Ryerson was not the friend of Indigenous people seen in the earlier parts about his life and legacy. It cites Ryerson’s testimony before the British Parliamentary Select Committee on Aboriginal Tribes in 1837 in which he contrasted the civilizing mission of schools with the “savage” and “vicious” past of the Mohawks, while attempting to raise funds to assist First Nations.

“Savage” and “barbarous” were, according to the early Scottish philosophers who influenced Ryerson’s thinking on moral philosophy, the two first stages of a society’s development. In modern terms, these represent the hunter-gatherer stage followed by the pastoral or herding stage. The third and final stage, “civilized,” represented the adoption of agriculture, with commerce and supporting industry. “Vicious” meant full of vice such as drinking and idleness, rather than bloodthirsty. 

THE REPORT’S AUTHORS cite this terminology as proof that he really was not the “friend” portrayed earlier. Ryerson obviously did not use these terms with their modern meaning. It is very unlikely that Ryerson would have used highly derogatory language, such as the modern meaning of these terms, in front of three Indigenous Methodist ministers, including his friend Peter Jones. On the other hand, arguing forcefully for the need to keep First Nations on the path towards improvement was a good way to raise money. 

The main report fails to mention the 1846 meeting between chiefs and officials of Canada West at which the chiefs asked for schools to help them survive in a changing society. Instead, the authors bury that key fact in Appendix D.

That makes it look as if Ryerson and the government were imposing schools on an unwilling population. The authors then make the same kind of assumption made in the Victoria Report, that Ryerson was recommending an inferior education suitable only to produce farmers. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the period. The economy of Canada West was based largely on farming: the great majority of settlers were engaged in it. Since the schools would also teach academic subjects, students could go on to other occupations like those whom Ryerson encouraged to take advantage of further opportunities in the 1830s. Indeed George Vardon emphasized that education was designed to put indigenous individuals on an equal footing with the settler population.

The report on Ryerson’s legacy concludes with a section on separate schools for black children, with comments on schooling for the disabled, poor children, and girls. The education of blacks is covered in more detail in Appendix D — that long, rambling catchall of multiple subjects loosely tied to the Ryerson straw man. 

‘Vardon emphasized that education was meant to put indigenous individuals on an equal footing’

The narrative details how Egerton Ryerson allowed the creation of black separate schools despite his stated preference for equal education for all; when he was approached by black parents after the legislation was in operation, seeking admission of their children to the public school system, he refused to do anything and told them to use the courts. What the narrative does not say is that Ryerson was under tremendous pressure from some white residents and officials to introduce separate schools — something he opposed in principle. According to Ryerson, he resisted as forcefully as he could but ultimately could not withstand the pressure. But he then made a clever move: He saw to it that each district could decide whether to introduce separate schools. The majority of districts chose not to do so and most of the colony remained free of separate schools, which were limited to parts of southwestern Canada West and the Hamilton area. In declining to intervene on behalf of black parents who after all paid school taxes, it must be remembered that as a civil servant he was not in a position to change the rules; hence his recommendation that parents appeal to the courts. The interpretation in the report makes it look as if Ryerson was clearly a racist.

The claim that Ryerson wanted to fragment the school population rather than providing equal education for all is a spurious one. He recommended special schools for children with disabilities, because the fledgling school system could not offer them the specialized treatment necessary to give them an equal education. In the suggestion that there should be special schools for the very poor, such children living on the street, he was recognizing that these children would not likely want or be able to attend regular schools. Far from trying to provide inferior education for these groups, he wanted to provide the special conditions necessary for them to get an equal education.

HIS BELIEF THAT girls did not need secondary (grammar) school education was not very forward looking by our standards but was appropriate for the times. Indeed, it is doubtful that even 20% of boys would advance beyond primary (common) school either, as they were destined to become farmers, farm labourers, or tradesmen. In fact, until primary education became mandatory in 1871, many boys did not bother to finish primary school. At the same time, probably close to 98% of women would become wives and homemakers, or household servants. Only a minority of boys and girls or their parents saw a need for education beyond basic literacy and mathematics. In addition, Ryerson’s personal opinions did not prevent those girls who wanted additional education from getting it.

While the main body of the report discusses some of the main “charges” against Ryerson, the compendium of unrelated material that is Appendix D seeks to tie him to the federal residential school system, a connection that the report itself earlier denied. He is quoted as being the “architect” of the Ontario school system, putting “architect” in italics. Having stated that there is no connection between the Ryerson Report and the Nicholas Flood Davin Report of 1879, which was in fact the basis for the residential school system, the authors then make a comparison between Ryerson’s words in his own report, and the wording of the Davin Report. It really is a bundle of contradictions! 

The last section of Appendix D is a description of the discovery of 215 possible graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, and the use of Ryerson’s statue in Toronto as a memorial to the lost children to imply a connection to residential schools where there was none. Even the Truth and Reconciliation Report did not find any connection between Ryerson and residential schools. 

‘The Ryerson University report really is a bundle of contradictions’

It is astonishing how twisted and simplistic is the basis for the case against Ryerson. It is truly, as the online version of a previous article in The Dorchester Review put it, an “imbecile attack.”

In another attempt to link Ryerson to residential schools, the authors point out that Ryerson’s Report was printed in 1898, and appended to the Statistics Respecting Indian Schools report of that year. This, along with Ryerson’s description of First Nations as “uncivilized,” is somehow supposed to be proof that the federal government took inspiration from Ryerson’s report. 

The University report does not use the “uncivilized” argument, presumably because the authors understood that the term did not have the negative connotations of today. Regarding the 1898 printing, a Ryerson University researcher spent several months last year looking into it and found that Ryerson’s 1847 report was printed with the “Indian” report in 1898 by mistake, because of a mix-up in the government printing department. The report was supposed to be attached to a different report, in all probability one that was critical of the government residential schools and that offered Ryerson’s as a better plan for indigenous schools.

In redefining Egerton Ryerson from a chief architect of residential schools to just one of a long string of Euro-Canadians who attempted to assimilate, the report contradicts the plaque placed beside the statue of Ryerson by the university, in 2018. It was this plaque, with its claim of “cultural genocide” that created the public perception of Ryerson as the racist creator of residential schools. Among the other Euro-Canadian “aggressors” listed is the Anglican-supervised Mohawk Institute, which began taking boarders in the early 1830s. In its early decades, the Institute was highly regarded by Indigenous families — so highly that many indigenous families from other communities applied to send their children there. How then was it an agent of cultural destruction? 

At the heart of these two reports is a basic assumption: that indigenous peoples were always  tricked or forced into accepting Christianity and foreign educational values, as many believe happened in the later federal schools. In fact, as Hope MacLean has pointed out, many, in the first half of the 19th century, welcomed the new religion and the knowledge that would let them function in the wider world. To equate schools such as the Mohawk Institute and the schools using Ryerson’s curriculum with the federal schools is to impose the present on the past.

Egerton Ryerson was not a saint. His concept of Industrial schools for First Nations was patronizing, but it was based on the curriculum of a successful school in Switzerland and had the support of a large percentage of indigenous inhabitants. His views about women and minorities were not as backward as depicted by recent semi-informed reports. His failings should be seen in the context of the massive educational improvements he brought to Canada West. He was indeed a friend to and a supporter of indigenous people, and a great educational reformer. It is dishonest to attack a straw man version of him to atone for the failings of the residential school system. It would have been more honest to have said, “We do not want our institutions associated with any white man, settler, or Euro-Canadian who interacted with indigenous inhabitants of Canada” and leave it at that. We must have reconciliation, but in order to achieve that, we must have truth.


Ronald Stagg is Professor of History at Metropolitan Toronto University, the institution formerly known as Ryerson University.