By Drew Penner
One of the most powerful Aboriginal leaders in Canada is calling for Ryerson to get involved in the residential school healing process as a way to overcome the racist legacy of the university’s founder.
While addressing a crowd on campus, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said the university should offer to host one of seven major Truth and Reconciliation Commission events. They are taking place across Canada to help erase the storied past of Egerton Ryerson, who was instrumental in creating the school system that tried to extinguish aboriginal culture and left scars of sexual and physical abuse that fester to this day.
This summer, Stephen Harper acknowledged the failed policy of assimilation promoted by Egerton Ryerson “was wrong, has caused great harm and has no place in our country.”
“It’s a difficult topic for people here at Ryerson to talk about,” said Monica McKay, coordinator for Ryerson Aboriginal student services.
“That is one of the challenges that Aboriginal students face on making the decision of coming to Ryerson — having to come to terms with realizing that Egerton Ryerson was one of the folks who put together and suggested that Aboriginal young people be removed and placed in residential schools,” she said.
Julia Hanigsberg, Ryerson’s general counsel and secretary of the board of governors, said although she is not that familiar with the specifics of Egerton Ryerson’s influence on the residential school system, the university is committed to promoting diversity.
“We are an inclusive environment and we are always trying to become a more inclusive environment,” she said.
“Ryerson is 100 per cent committed to its Aboriginal students.”
She said she doesn’t know how a national Truth and Reconciliation event would be structured, but that it is an historic step for Canada.
“I think that if the commission wanted to come to Ryerson, I can’t see that Ryerson wouldn’t be interested in talking about it.”
Lynn Lavallée, chair of Ryerson’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee said Fontaine’s words will be taken seriously by aboriginals.
“If the Prime Minister came to Ryerson and suggested Ryerson be involved in something, do you think Ryerson would listen?” she said.
As a voice for the Aboriginal community within the administration, she’s looking forward to discussing the possibility of the event on campus. The committee could create a proposal at their next meeting on Nov. 18.
But there has yet to be any official discussions between Ryerson and the Truth and Reconciliation commission.