Reflections on Egerton Ryerson

By: Rev. David Kim-Cragg, St. Matthew’s United Church, Richmond Hill.

Excerpts from Sermon given at Rosedale United Church, Toronto 2024 03  17

…It is an honour to be here today. Thank you for the invitation to take part in your “What If” sermon series. I think this is a great theme  and I hope to leave you with a good “What if” today. I just hope it isn’t, “What if we had invited someone else?”

To get things started, I invite you to participate with me for a moment in an exercise of the imagination. Close your eyes and imagine if you will that we have traveled back in time. The year is 1849, the date is the 25th of July, a Wednesday. Because we are all good Methodists, the first thing we do on a Wednesday is to run out and grab a copy of The Christian Guardian. This is the paper that Egerton Ryerson founded in 1829 and, incidentally, the paper that many of us still read today in the form of Broadview Magazine. But we are not in 2024, we are in 1849, July 25. You snatch up your copy of the Guardian and find a good place to sit down and read, to take in all the political and religious goings on of Upper Canada. Perhaps you are interested in the rebuilding efforts following the Cathedral fire that had gutted the market district of downtown Toronto in the spring. Or maybe you are anxiously following the recent Cholera outbreak in the province. Or maybe you are just looking for some spiritual encouragement from a respected divine in articles on topics such as prayer or sanctification or family life.  As you open the paper, your eyes are drawn to a story on page two where the words are printed in bold Gothic type: “The Corner Stone of this Industrial School was Laid”. The report is of an event that occurred one week earlier on July 17.

The opening paragraph runs as follows:

On Tuesday, the 17th, the cornerstone of the industrial school at Muncey Mission was laid by the reverend Dr. Richey, President of the Conference and the Rev. E. Wood, Superintendent of Missions, assisted by several other Ministers, S. Morrell, Esq., Ex-Mayor of London, and the chiefs of the Muncey, the Ojebway, and the Oneida Tribes.

It continues…

The day was delightful and the scene no less so. A deep interest was manifestly felt by the great body of Christianised Indians assembled on the occasion[…]. Five or six hundred of the Red men were assembled at the hour appointed for the laying of the cornerstone, above which floated the Banner of England. The Oneida Tribe had marched from their village, preceded by the chief, bearing the national flag and who on arriving at the spot placed the banner above the stone. The Ojebways, the Munceys, and the Oneida mingled together and formed a respectable, as they did a numerous, company.

(I’ll stop here.)

The story is of a gathering attended by hundreds of settler and Indigenous Christians together and with two flags: a Union Jack and a banner of the Oneida nation fly together over the same cornerstone. It should be noted that Indigenous membership in the Methodist Episcopal church of Upper Canada at the time was in the thousands, and comprised a greater proportion of the church than did Indigenous people of the entire population in Upper Canada at the time. One United Church historian has suggested Indigenous membership was an important reason the Methodist denomination survived and flourished in Upper Canada. As we read along, we discover that following the ceremony the settlers in attendance are guests at a feast provided by their Indigenous hosts. The article then seems to give the final assessment of the feast and of the day: “Nothing was left to wish for — nothing to regret.” 

Given the fact that this story is the story of the laying of the cornerstone of the United Church’s residential school legacy, this assessment could scarcely be more ironic.

Today I would like to address this legacy of residential schools, one of the most tragic particularities of Canadian history, and one of the most consequential “What ifs” of our nation’s past and of our church’s past.

For those seeking to get an understanding of our residential school history, it can be a profoundly confusing experience trying to get beyond the latest grim headlines that provoke a visceral, black and white assessment of the past. The article in The Guardian whose beginning we just read gives many indications that things got started off on a better foot than the bleak legacy of Residential schools might suggest. The positive and optimistic tone of the Christian Guardian was indeed reflected in many of the Indigenous people present at the cornerstone laying ceremony.

Earlier experiments with day schools by the Anishnaabeg in collaboration in the Methodist church in what is now southwestern Ontario had included a bilingual curriculum with school material printed in both English and Anishinaabemowin. Kahkewaquonaby, Chief of the Mississauga’s of the Credit and Methodist minister, along with his close friend Egerton Ryerson, had worked together on the educational program of these schools. Ryerson had used the Guardian to print what might be the first words in Anishinaabemowin ever to hit the press in Canada or anywhere in the world for that matter. Similar plans to promote Indigenous leadership were afoot for the Muncey school. Indigenous communities had reason to believe that these schools would eventually be Indigenous run and benefit their children, allowing them to prosper as Indigenous people alongside the newcomers. What’s more, they were part of an agenda for preserving and strengthening their beloved Anishinaabe language and culture alongside settler culture. But they failed. Why?

The movie Killers of the Flower Moon, one of the nominees for best film at the Oscar Awards this year, holds a clue. As I understanding it, the premise of the story can be summed up in a word: greed, heartless, unvarnished greed. Based on historical events, the story is told how through murder and deceit settlers laboured to separate a community of Indigenous people from the oil wealth which was found beneath their reserve. Scorsese makes the lines between good and evil pretty clear in this film. This distinction, however, still seems fuzzy for contemporary issues involving settler and Indigenous relations in Canada. For settler-eyes at any rate, the workings of greed continue to go undetected through many of Canada’s present-day dealings with Indigenous people.

 Thomas King, author of Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King would say. “It’s all about the land.” In other words, its all about the desire of settlers to get their hands on the land for their benefit. Right across the country Indigenous communities are still fighting to have their rights to the land respected and reap the benefits rather than the poisons of resource extraction. Just earlier this month the Cat Lake First nations was forced to ask for an injunction against building a mining road into their community because the Ontario government was not prepared to wait for them to do their own environment assessment on a proposed new mine. Meanwhile, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has had to file a lawsuit to get justice for the fact that Oil Sand companies released toxins into their water and no one bothered to tell them about it. Residential schools, as they came to exist following confederation, also served to move Indigenous people off the land and out of the way so that settlers could access the resources.

There is an additional motivation that helps account for the demise of the dream of education and well-being which Indigenous people dreamed in the 1800s: fear of cultural difference.

Canada’s preeminent historian of residential schools, JR Miller, has written, “although the residential school had in the 19th century begun life as the product of both Indian initiative and European cultural aggression, it had gradually become the vehicle of the newcomers’ attempts to refashion and culturally eliminate the first inhabitants’ way of life and identity.”

…With the vantage of 175 years, it does truly seem as if that moment in 1849 presented a fork in the road. At the cornerstone laying ceremony, another way seemed possible. Two flags were raised over the cornerstone, settler and indigenous cultures recognized. Materials for worship and education were being printed in Indigenous languages. Indigenous people were funding the school themselves with treaty remittances. Relationships at the laying of the cornerstone of the Muncey Industrial School seemed strong. I would suggest that as they laid that cornerstone, Indigenous and settler were much closer than they are today both in church and in Canada at large. Church apologies and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have not yet restored us to the degree of trust and cooperation that existed in 1849. Maybe, with different decisions following that moment things could have been very different.

What if. What if instead of prioritizing the self-interest of one group, Canada had committed to the prosperity of all its people? What if instead of the fear of another culture and new spiritual  perspectives, the Christian settlers had been open to learn from their Indigenous neighbours?….   Amen and thanks be to God.

Biographical Sketch

David Kim Cragg was ordained in 2000 and has served in a variety of different ministries. Prior to his current position at St. Matthew’s United Church in Richmond Hill, Ontario he served for 11 years as Ecumenical Chaplain at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon where he also studied and taught.  David has a PhD in history with a dissertation on the history of relationship between the Korean and Canadian church. In Saskatoon, he also served 5 ½ years as minister to Grosvernor Park United Church, a congregation with a courageous affirming ministry to the LGBT2Q+ community.  Before that he and his family served as overseas personnel in South Korea.  His first years in ministry were in southwestern Ontario, as a rural minister near Sarnia and a Youth and Young Adult Minister to the area surrounding Windsor.