So much misinformation about Egerton Ryerson has circulated for so long that students in general, and Indigenous students in particular, have grievous misconceptions, troubling especially to Indigenous students who have heard repeatedly that he was responsible for the Canadian residential school system, and all its abuses and deaths.

No, he was not. He instead supported the voluntary, bilingual (Ojibway and English) schools that Indigenous leaders themselves wanted. They (and he) wanted better economic opportunities for Indigenous people and the ability to communicate with government officials and settlers. Bilingual schools made sense.

Ryerson’s 1847 Report, is it the “smoking gun”?

People who blame Ryerson for the federal residential system imposed typically cite his short report of 1847, the only time he ever addressed the issue ,and that  at the request of the Indian Affairs Department, which then never used his ideas. They rather, followed the recommendations of the Bagot Commission of 1844 and the Davin Commission of 1879, both of which advocated forced assimilation. Even a quick look at Ryerson’s short report  (available at  will show different it was.

Its aim was economic improvement, by training in agriculture, then by far the largest industry in Ontario. But, while Ryerson bashers say he wanted to relegate Indigenous people to mere” agricultural labourers” or “manual labourers,” his report set out a range of occupations from skilled agricultural labourer up to farm owners,“overseers of some the largest farms in Canada,” and “prosperous farmers on their own account.”

 Ryerson’s proposal, as well, specified academic subjects, including:

For instruction  in the summer, he advised  “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 working day proposed for the summer was onerous, no doubt, but it would be paid work, so that pupils  could “accumulate considerable sums for their assistance in commencing business for themselves.”  In fact, pupils at residential schools were never paid for their work, but Ryerson had nothing to do with them—he died the year before those schools were legislated.

Ryerson critics misquote the report to condemn Ryerson. Dr William Robins, president of Victoria University (University of  Toronto) , in his “Presidential Report on the Legacy of Egerton Ryerson,” characterized his 1847 report for wanting to make “agricultural labourers” out of Indigenous people: “Ryerson proposed residential schools which would be overseen by the Indian Department but run by church denominations, which would be predicated upon Christianization, and which would train students to become agricultural labourers.” Those two words are in Ryerson’s report, with:”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.” (Ryerson, 1898 [1847]). Robins used the hated term “residential schools,” which Ryerson never did. Robins  failed also to recognize that the “industrial schools” Ryerson advocated, were meant for a portion of Indigenous who wanted to attend them, and would form only part of their education. They would begin at the common day schools, and live at home.

The pupils needed to “reside together,” as Ryerson put it, on account of the practical farm tasks and care of farm equipment that were central to their purpose. For the federal system, the schools had to be residential to promote assimilation, an entirely different goal.

That Ryerson’s short, handwritten, report was not used is obvious in the fact that it was not even printed until 1898, and that as an appendix to a report, Statistics Respecting Residential Schools,

Ryerson’s Actual Connections with Indigenous People

Ryerson lived  with Indigenous people 1826-27, when he learned Ojibway and was made an Ojibway ”brother,” by a chief. He felt a warm connection with them, as he described it: “When he lived with the Ojibway, ““I was never more comfortable and happy.”  They “ received me with affection and enabled me to embrace them as brethren and love them as mine own people  (cited by Burwash, Nathanael. Egerton Ryerson).

Ryerson supported the land claims and claims to exclusive fishing rights  of the Mississaugas of the Credit. When his friend, Kakewaquonaby (Peter Jones), an elected chief, went to England to press for title, Ryerson wrote him a letter of introduction to the colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg, in which he described  him as “ one of the first fruits  of our missionary labours among the aboriginal tribes of the, “ and “a chief  in the tribe to which  he belongs.” He called him “a laborious and successful missionary to various tribes of his nation. He is deputed by his people to do  all in his power to promote their religious and  civil  interests  especially in procuring proper titles to their land,” and then reminded Lord Glenelg that he had spoken to him about it when in England. (Credit Mission Letterbook, 1825-1842, 121-2. RG 10, vol. 1011, on microfilm reel T-1456.Library and Archives Canada, Image number 78).

By contrast, see the letter sent by the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis Bond ead:

 Wrote about him: “Mr Peter Jones who has the power of attorney which the bearer has the title of Chief and Missionary of the Mississauga tribe  of the Chippewa nation is the son of an American surveyor who in open adultery had children by several Indian squaws deemed it admirable to bring up one of them as a Missionary” (Smith, 165).

Ryerson later tried to get Kakewaquonaby (Peter  Jones) appointed as the agent for Indian Affairs in the western part of Canada West (Ontario), when the current, unsatisfactory one, was to be dismissed: I take the liberty of mentioning for the favorable  consideration of His Excellency, the name of the reverend Peter Jones as Col Clench’s  successor….I have known him from boyhood. I was the first  stationed Missionary among his tribe on their settlement at the Credit in 1826, and had the happiness of  being their teacher in the first elements of domestic economy and agriculture, as well as in the doctrines and  duties of Christianity and Mr Jones was my chief  interpreter and most efficient assistant. Since then he has become an able Minister –a well-educated man—a man of large and liberal views, I know of  no man whom I think  better qualified for the  office,” to close with further comments on his merits.(Smith,  Sacred Feathers, 226).

Kakewaquonaby did not get the appointment, but imagine, an Indigenous man, an elected chief, being a senior official in the Department of  Indian Affairs!


Egerton Ryerson’s 1847 Report on Indian Industrial Schools, requested by George Vardon
Assistant Superintendent General, INDIAN AFFAIRS, Appendix D

Robins, William. Presidential Report on the Legacy of Egerton Ryerson. Victoria University 2021.

Smith, Donald B. Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians. 2nd ed. University of Toronto Press 2013. 1st ed. 1988.