Denouncers of Egerton Ryerson like to cite his 1847 report on “industrial schools” as the prime evidence linking 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, from eight to twelve in the summer. Ryerson was himself a farmer’s son, had worked on his father’s farm, and knew what was needed. He recommended payment for 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 their becoming “working farmers,” some indeed to be “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.  

Egerton Ryerson’s 1847 Report on Indian Industrial Schools 

Requested by George Vardon
Assistant Superintendent General.

Sirs – I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 18th, March, requesting such suggestions as I might be able to offer as to the best method of establishing and conducting Industrial Schools for the benefit of the aboriginal Indian Tribes, and after a longer delay than I had at first anticipated. I find myself at length able to command the time  from necessary official duties to comply with your request. I shall have great pleasure in stating to you, in as few words as possible, what occurs to me on this most important subject. 

The first thing to be considered  is the precise objects and designation of such establishments, secondly, the extent and manner of Government control respecting them, and then the general regulations under which they should be conducted. 

(1) In regard to the designation and objects of such establishments, I would suggest that they be called Industrial Schools; they are more than schools of manual labor: they are schools of learning and religion; and industry is the great element of efficiency in each of these. I should, therefore, prefer the designation of industrial school to that of manual labour school. 

As to the objects of these establishments, I understand them not to contemplate anything more in respect to intellectual training than to give a plain English education adapted to the working farmer and mechanic. In this their object is identical with that of every good common school, but in addition to this, pupils of the industrial schools are to be taught agriculture, kitchen gardening, and mechanics, so far as mechanics is connected with making and repairing the most useful agricultural implements. It is, therefore, necessary that the pupils should reside together. Hence the necessity of providing for their domestic education, and for every part of their religious instruction. This last, I conceive to be absolutely essential, not merely upon general Christian principles, but also upon the ground of what I may term Indian economics, as it is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization ( including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings.  

 Even in ordinary civilized life, the mass of the labouring classes are controlled by their feelings as almost the only rule of action, in proportion to the absence or partial character of their intellectual development.  The theory of a certain kind of educational philosophy is falsified in respect to the Indian; with him nothing can be done to improve and elevate his character and condition without the aid of religious feeling. This influence must be superadded to all others to make the Indian a sober and industrious man. Even a knowledge of the doctrines and moral precepts of orthodox Christianity, with all the appliances of prudential example and instruction, is inadequate to produce in the heart and life of the Indian, the spirit and habits of an industrial civilization, without the additional 0energy and impulsive activity of religious feeling. The animating and controlling spirit of each industrial school establishment should, therefore, in my opinion, be a religious one. The religious culture in daily exercises and instruction should be a prominent object of attention; and besides vocal music, generally, sacred vocal music should form an important branch of their education. 

Then in respect to secular learning, I conceive there is, and ought to be, a wide difference between the objects of these schools, and what are usually termed manual labour schools. In the latter, learning is the end proposed; manual labor is the means to that end, and subordinate to it The chief prominence is, therefore, given to learning, and labour is pursued only two or three hours a day, and more as a recreation than as employment, as a means of aiding the pupil to support himself.  by reducing the ordinary charges of the school or of providing additional resources for its support. In the contemplated industrial schools, I understand the end proposed to be the making of the pupils industrious farmers, and that learning is provided for and pursued only so far as it will contribute to that end. 

I believe the educating of the pupils as mechanics as well as farmers has been spoken of, but however imposing such a proposal may be in theory, however pleasing may be the thought of thus training up the Indian youth as carpenters, cabinet makers, shoemakers, tailors, etc., I think it is neither expedient nor practicable with the probable resources available to provide for educating them in the industrial schools to any other pursuit other than that of agriculture. The following are my reasons for this opinion: 

  1. To employ tradesmen in order to give instruction in each these branches of labour will require  a large expenditure, besides the heavy expense of erecting buildings for their  accommodation and stock of tools for them to work with.
    2. The management of schools including so many departments and so many agents, in connection with each establishment, will be very difficult at best, and will often be attended with perplexing embarrassment.   
  2. 3.I do not think a sufficient number of tradesmen will be required or find continuous employment among the Indians to justify the expense of thus providing for teaching trades in the industrial schools. In any instance in which an Indian youth may evince an inclination and  genius for a particular branch of mechanics, I think it will be better to apprentice him to some competent and trustworthy tradesman than to incur the expense and difficulty of teaching various trades in the industrial schools. 

Agriculture being the chief interest, and probably the most suitable employment of the civilized Indians, I think the great object of industrial schools should be to fit the pupils for becoming working farmers and agricultural labourers, fortified of course by Christian principles, feelings and habits. 

(2) Such being, as it appears to me, the appropriate objects of the industrial schools, it now becomes a question of great practical importance, how far government can advantageously interfere in their management and control. I think that any attempt to carry on these establishments  by providing  merely for secular instruction, and that any attempt to separate secular from the religious instruction, will prove a failure; and that any attempt on the part of the Government to provide religious instruction will be found equally impracticable. I think, therefore, the interference or control of the Government should be confined to that which the Government can do with most effect and the least trouble, namely, to the right of inspecting the schools from time to time by an agent or agents of its own, to the right of having detailed reports of the schools as often as it shall think proper to require them, at least once or twice a year, and the right of continuing or withholding the grant made in aid of these schools. It is this power over the grant, the exercise of which will be determined by the inspections made and the reports given, that the paramount authority of the Government.  in respect to these schools will be secured, while the endless difficulties and embarrassments arising from fruitless attempts to manage the schools in detail will be avoided. 

I think there should be a mutual understanding, and, on the following points, concurrence between the Government and the religious denomination through the agency of which each of these schools is to be conducted: 

1. The appointment of the superintendent.
2. The buildings  to be erected.
3. The conditions on which pupils shall be received into the schools. 

The appointment and dismissal of the other assistants and labourers at the industrial school establishment, can be most beneficially left with the authorities of the religious  persuasion having charge of the majority of the Indians where each school may be established.  Such religious persuasion contributing part of the funds necessary to support the school and being the spiritual instructor of the Indians concerned, will have a direct interest in the most economical management of it, and in the employment of the best agents, and will have much better opportunities of doing so than the Government. Even in the common schools in England, the Government lays down general principles and regulations and claims the right of inspection in granting aid to religious denominations complying with those regulations in the establishment and support of such schools, but does not otherwise interfere with the local management of them. 

(3) As to the general regulations on which the Government should insist in the management of these industrial schools, the following remarks and suggestions are respectfully submitted: 

1. The religious character of these contemplated schools and the religious influences which must pervade all departments of their immediate management, in order to their efficiency and permanent success, have been sufficiently remarked upon in the former part of this communication. 

2. It follows as a necessary consequence, that everything as to human agency in regard to the success of these schools, depends upon the character and qualifications of the superintendent and agents employed to conduct them. It was the piety and judgment and example of the late excellent Mr de Fellenberg, more than any code of rules, that rendered his agricultural school for the poor, at Hofwyl, near Berne, in Switzerland, a blessing to hundreds of peasant youth, and the model of all similar establishments as it still  continues to be under the direction of his sons and son-in-law. I visited that establishment in the autumn of 1845, and found it the beau ideal of what I would wish our Indian industrial schools to be. On my visiting the celebrated Normal School at Haarlem, and conversing a long time with the head master, the venerable Prinsen (who for more than 20 years has stood at the head of the school teaching system of Holland, and whose system is adopted in Belgium), I asked him for the printed rules and regulations of his establishment; he replied ( pointing to himself ) “I am the rules of the school. If the master of a school has not the rules in his head and heart (pointing to his head and heart) they will be of little use on paper.” But, I do not think we can altogether dispense with rules in our Indian industrial schools, yet the rules however carefully prepared and excellent, will be of little advantage unless they are exemplified in the character, example and spirit of the instructors and assistants, and the task of selecting and overseeing such agents can be much more effectually performed by the authorities of a religious body than by the Government.  

3. As to the number of agents to be employed in each establishment, that must depend on circumstances. I do not think any rule can be laid down on this point. As labour and instruction must be carried on together, under a paternal discipline, it would be desirable that the master of the school should also be a farmer and the pupils the members of his family. But it is seldom that such a variety of rare qualifications is found in one person. Mr de Fellenberg could, during his whole life, meet with but one such person; his son-in-law now sustains this three-fold office with great piety, and zeal and efficiency. But, I think in general, it will be found necessary to employ at each of the  establishments, a superintendent who ought to be the spiritual pastor and father of the family, a farmer and a schoolmaster. 

Perhaps a person may be found for each of these establishments who will combine in himself the qualification of farmer and school teacher. I think it will also be found necessary to employ occasionally a mechanic and one or more labourers. 

4. In regard to the pupils, I think the time occupied in labour should be from 8 to 12 hours a day during the summer, and instruction from 2 to 4 hours, and that during the winter the amount of labour should be lessened, and that of study to increased. During  two or three weeks of planting in the spring, of harvest in the summer, and of seed sowing, etc., in the autumn, it may, perhaps, be well to omit instruction altogether. Gymnastic exercises in the winter may replace the agricultural labour of  summer, but the time and kinds of recreation must depend on circumstances. 

5. In respect to the division of time, perhaps something like the following may be advisable. To rise at five in the summer, attend to the police of the house,  and have prayers and lessons in the school until seven,  breakfast at seven, labour from  eight am until noon, dinner and intermission from twelve until one,  labour from one until six, supper at six,   lessons until eight, have prayers and  retire to bed between eight and nine. On Sunday the hours of rising, prayers, meals and retiring to bed the same as on other days. The pupils belonging to the religious persuasion by whom the school is managed should attend to its public services, pupils of any other religious persuasion should attend their own place of worship,  if there is any in the neighbourhood, otherwise attend the worship of the school. In the intervals of public services, both in the morning and in the afternoon, they should have lessons in sacred music, the catechism, etc. The hours of rising might be made an hour later in  winter than in summer. 

6. The course of instruction should include 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. The instruction during the summer should, I think, be connected with the  agricultural employment of the pupils, including 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. The pupils should be taught natural history 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. Each pupil should be taught and required to keep a cash, a real, and, after a time a personal account, first including the little money that he may receive and spend, the second, the clothes as well as money and any other articles that he may receive, his boarding and lodging, school teaching, school books, etc., at a fixed price; then crediting himself  with  his work at a certain valuation, entering it daily or weekly into his waste book or journal. He should be required to post and balance his accounts monthly. After a time he might be taught to adopt the form of personal accounts with the superintendent, schoolmaster, farmer, etc. I think it would be beneficial to allow each pupil, say a penny or so per day, for work, allowing 12 hours labour for a day’s work; and paying him the sum thus earned at his leaving the school to set up for himself. The gratuity might be increased during the last year or two of his remaining in the school. His receiving it should be made dependent upon two conditions, his good conduct and correctness in keeping and posting his accounts from time to time according to the system laid down. In this way the headmaster of Hofwyl Agricultural School requires each of his agricultural pupils to keep accounts: he devotes half an hour each day during the Summer, immediately after dinner, to teaching his pupils how to enter into their waste books or journals the items above referred to, and how, from time to time, to post and balance their accounts; and he informed me that he considered all his labour fruitless if he did not teach these young farmers to keep correct, detailed accounts. 

7. In connection with the above methods of teaching book-keeping and farmers’ accounts, I think the superintendent of each industrial school should be required to keep a journal, a cash, a real and a personal account, together with the proper ledgers. The journal should include the  transactions of every day. The cash account, the money that he receives and pays out. In the real account, there should be also an account opened for clearing land, for each field, each kind of grain, each kind of stock, for farming implements, for the boarding  hall, the school, fuel, etc. There should be also an account for capital or stock, and an inventory of it made once or twice a year, and the superintendent should be held personally  responsible for every article not accounted for by being worn out, broken, etc. Thus the expense, the profit and loss, not only of the whole establishment could be ascertained from time to time, but also the expense of every department of it, of every kind of grain, stock, etc. The keeping and the posting of these several accounts might after a time be assigned to the more advanced pupils ,and should in due course be taught to them all, so that they might thus advance from keeping accounts involving a few pence or a few shillings and few articles, to keeping accounts embracing every branch of agriculture and to the amounts of hundreds of pounds. The Government Inspector would. of course examine these accounts and the proper vouchers with the greatest care, and the Government might require an abstract of them from time to time. 

This system of accounts, it appears to me, will be one of the most effectual means of securing correctness and economy in the management of these industrial schools, of checking extravagance, preventing injudicious expenditures, and of suggesting from time to time the means and subjects of retrenchment and improvement, while it will train up the pupils to habits of order and business, that will render them objects of desire by proprietors, as overseers of farms, should they not settle on farms of their own, as many of the pupils of the Irish National Agricultural School, near Dublin, are to proprietors in different parts of Ireland.  It would be a gratifying result to see graduates of our Indian industrial schools become overseers of some the largest farms in Canada, nor will it be less gratifying to see them industrious and prosperous farmers on their own account. 

8. Of course no age can be prescribed at present for the admission of pupils into industrial schools. In general, I think they should remain there for 4 to 8 years, according to the age of entering and according to attainments and capacity to manage for themselves. 

I think with judicious management, these establishments will be able in the course of a few years very nearly to support themselves, besides enabling the industrious and prudent students to accumulate considerable sums for their assistance in commencing business for themselves. But. of course, considerable outlays will be necessary in establishing these schools. 

I make no remark on plans of buildings, systems of agriculture, nor on numerous details as to modes of transacting business and teaching. I fear, indeed, I have entered too much into details already. But I submit these observations, suggestions and hints, such as they are, to the indulgent consideration of His Excellency and the Indian Department. 

If I have omitted to notice any points which you think of importance, I will readily supply such missions, and will be ready at any time to do what I can to promote the objects of these contemplated industrious schools. 

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Egerton Ryerson,
May 26, 1847