By John Mather
A couple of years ago, The Eyeopener’s features editor Robyn Doolittle and news editor Jen Gerson trekked to Mount Pleasant Cemetery to play Ouija board on Egerton Ryerson’s grave. Egerton, namesake of this university, was the founder of Canada’s public education system and set up his historic Normal School in what is now the Kerr Hall Quad.
It was a stunt of dubious journalistic value, but the two reporters were not looking to uncover a greater truth — they just thought it was fun. They asked Egerton what he thought of then-president Claude Lajeunesse and what was the best campus newspaper.
The resulting article, written by Doolittle (now editor in chief), was featured on the cover. She wrote about how she and Gerson felt tacky when they asked strangers to take a photo of the two grinning reporters — with an actual funeral procession in the background. For three days, the comments on the paper’s website ranged from “Robyn is hot” to accusations that the reporters had too much time on their hands.
Then on Oct. 30, a reader using the handle Egerton the Colonialist *sshole said: “Eggy was involved in creating the two-tiered residential school system for indigenous people. What a contribution to this f*cking countries (sic) colonialist exploitation!”
It seemed that Doolittle and Gerson had unintentionally conjured up the biggest controversy associated with “the gloomy renegade who shaped our schools” — what Maclean’s dubbed Egerton in 1955.
In 1847, the superintendent general for Indian affairs in Upper Canada asked Egerton, the superintendent of education, to prepare a report on native education. In it, Ryerson suggested that the federal government educate “Indians” in separate schools that focused on religion and manual labour.
His report is considered by some to mark the beginning of the residential school system in Canada — a national travesty that natives and others call a genocide.
For days, debate snapped back and forth in the online comments. The emotion wasn’t tepid and the commentators accused the paper of ignoring this dark side to our namesake’s past. The staff maintained that the article was intended to be light-hearted, a silly Halloween prank.
“That’s the problem,” commented Rye High, another message poster. “Why didn’t your article mention that Egerton Ryerson helped set up the cultural genocide of Aboriginals? Perhaps, the CrapOpener can do an article about how Egerton Ryerson was racist, and he and his people conquered Canada and the rest of the world, in search of civilizing the non-whites!”
So here it is, two and a half years later. And though it’s clear Egerton’s ambition wasn’t to commit mass genocide, this aspect of his life has damaged his otherwise pristine reputation as a great public educator.
The school’s archives take up half of the library’s third floor. Stuffed heads of former Ram mascots are mounted on the wall, staring down at display cases that offer tributes to the old O’Keefe brewing house, a portrait of Ryerson’s founder Howard Kerr and a collection of Egerton Ryerson memorabilia. If you ask archivist Claude Doucet about Egerton’s role in founding residential schools, he’ll tell you he knows nothing about it, except that you aren’t the first person to have asked.
The library has some primary documents from Egerton’s time, as well as three file folders filled with what has been written about him since his death. His 1847 report is only mentioned in a 2005 Ryersonian piece, however it’s clear that the reporter relied on Google to conduct his research.
“There is nothing more I can tell you,” Doucet will say.
A similar refrain comes from Monica McKay, co-ordinator of Ryerson’s aboriginal students services. She has definitely heard that Egerton was crucial in the creation of residential schools and has had some of the 65 self-identified aboriginal students ask her about it. But that’s it. She doesn’t know much else either. An Internet, library and academic database search doesn’t reveal much more. But there is a lot to learn about the “industrious, obstinate, confusingly contradictory Methodist minister.”
Born to Anglican loyalists in Upper Canada in 1803, Egerton Ryerson enjoyed going to the local grammar school. In 1821, he told his father he was going to become a Methodist, which garnered the response: “Leave my house.” He reconciled with his father two years later, but didn’t stick around — choosing instead to go to law school. Egerton didn’t last there either.
He suffered from “brain fever,” a nervous breakdown, and during his recovery, he decided to become a minister. This decision shaped the rest of Egerton’s life and certainly influenced his philosophy about education.
In 1826, Egerton became as famous as a Methodist preacher-in-training could get when he blasted the Archdeacon of York in a 12,000-word editorial William Lyon Mackenzie printed in the Colonial Advocate. His condemnation of the Methodist-bashing Archdeacon improved Egerton’s standing in the community and he moved on to work as a missionary with the Mississauga Ojibwa tribe on the Credit River.
Methodists in this time opened day schools in villages across the colony with enthusiasm. Here he met Peter Jones, chief of the Credit band, who was also a minister. The two would see eye to eye on the residential schools, as the current day schools weren’t working.
Once ordained, Egerton started The Christian Guardian, Canada’s most-read newspaper. It was published by Ryerson Publishing press, which still exists today. In 1833, he went to England to fight the Anglican Church’s bid to become the official church of Canada. When he returned, he became principal of Methodist academy Victoria College.
There, he eliminated the coed program, sending the girls away, and cut all vacations except Christmas and New Year’s. Then in 1843, Egerton helped elect an advisory council friendly to the governor general and in return, he was appointed school superintendent. He worked for Upper Canada for more than 30 years, introducing free primary and secondary education. Instead of focusing on the three R’s, Egerton believed students should study science and the arts. It was during these years that he established the Normal School to train the colony’s teachers and earned the reputation as the godfather of Canada’s education system.
And this is likely the only way Egerton would be remembered if he hadn’t been a supporter of residential schools. There is no single event that is accepted as the genesis of residential schools, but the Bagot Commission Report, named after the governor in 1842, became a seminal document in the establishment of labour schools for native boys. Egerton supported the Bagot Commission. He believed, in complete faith, that separate schools run by the government were the best way to improve native quality of life.
It was a belief formed on the Credit River with Chief Jones. Egerton wanted to emphasize religious and language teachings, while also instructing farming and mechanical labour to make the school self-sufficient. He did not want the natives to learn specific trades, arguing that they would do best as “working farmers and agricultural labourers.”
Egerton apparently elaborated on these thoughts in the 1847 report, though there isn’t a lot of available research on the actual text itself. For the most part, it’s cited on timelines of residential schools.
For instance, one from cbc.ca reads: “1847 — Egerton Ryerson produces a study of native education at the request of the assistant superintendent general of Indian affairs. His findings become the model for future native residential schools. Ryerson recommends that domestic education and religious instruction is the best model for the Indian population. The recommended focus is on agricultural training; and government funding will be awarded through inspections and reports.”
Egerton was a man of his times and his peers would not have seen him as a rabid, or even radical, racist. In fact, from what is available, it appears Egerton was convinced that his plan of federally funded separate schools was the only choice to ensure the well-being of aboriginals. In reality, the opposite turned out to be true. As J.R. Miller, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan and residential school expert, says, “Nobody yet knew what the horrors of the residential school would bring.”
In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce, medical inspector for the Department of Indian Affairs, found that nearly 50 per cent of all western residential school students died from disease. His report, entitled “A Story of a National Crime,” came to light in 1922.
Unfortunately, two years earlier, the government had amended the Indian Act to force all native children ages 7 to 15 to attend residential schools, now called boarding schools, which churches of various denominations ran with government funding. Parents could go to jail if they didn’t send their children to a place where teachers banished aboriginal languages. And once there, the schools acted as assimilation camps where a host of human rights abuses —sexual assault, corporal punishment and forced labour — occurred.
The abuse continued until the government started closing boarding schools in the 1990s when public awareness of the abuse grew. The last residential school closed in Saskatchewan in 1996. And in April 2006, the Conservative government completed a $1.9-billion compensation deal with the Assembly of First Nations that had first been negotiated with the Liberal government.
Undermining the financial relief, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice said the government wouldn’t apologize on behalf of Canada. Native leaders were outraged that today, 170 years after Egerton advocated for schools to teach native children European culture, the government could not say: “We’re sorry.”
In 1889, seven years after Egerton’s death, a large gathering attended the erection of a bronze statue cast in his image. George Brown, founder of The Globe newspaper and harsh critic of Egerton, was on hand to describe the events: “It is seldom in the history of a nation that all classes, creeds and colors could be got together to do honor to the memory of one man.”
Today, Ryerson’s student body — made of multiple classes, creeds and colours — flocks by Egerton’s statue on Gould street without much thought, laughing maybe at a RyeEng sticker slapped on his forehand. The effigy is one of the school’s few points of history, making it a regular stop on all campus tours – where the guides, it can be certain, do not discuss the dark side to this minister’s legacy.