Photo: Sierra Bein

Yes, Egerton Ryerson helped create the residential school system

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By Jacob Dubé

Critics say a column published Wednesday in The Globe and Mail undercuts Egerton Ryerson’s role in the creation of the residential school system in Canada.

The writer, University of Calgary history professor Donald Smith, argues that Ryerson wasn’t anti-Indigenous because he had a good relationship with the Mississaugas of New Credit and he didn’t create the residential-school system—he only wrote a report in 1847 about Indigenous boarding schools for adults.

“Don Smith has definitely done some work on this, but that piece obscures a lot of Ryerson’s legacy and the contribution he made to designing the residential school system in Canada,” said Ryerson University advisor to the dean of arts on Indigenous education Hayden King, who is Gchi’mnissing Anishinaabe. “It was condescending to students, patronizing to the Ryerson community to assume that we had not done our research and not known who Ryerson was. This attempt to rescue Egerton Ryerson was really disingenuous.”

King refers to Ryerson’s 1847 report on page 73 of “Statistics respecting Indian Schools” in which Ryerson recommends the creation of schools where Indigenous peoples work for a couple hours a day and take English and religion classes.

“He cites an average length of time for students at residential schools to be between four and eight years, which of course indicates he was not talking about adults, but children,” King says.

This report was used to implement and refine the residential school system that operated in Canada for over 100 years.

Ryerson was Ontario’s chief superintendent of schools from 1842 to 1876. In his position of authority he created his report and continuously advocated for Indigenous children to be educated separately from white children at boarding schools away from their families.

“He believed that we didn’t deserve the same type of education, that we deserved a different type of education. One that was essentially the residential school system, that only went to grade three and that was for the purpose of training future exploited labour workers who were Indigenous,” said Sarah Dennis, a member of Ryerson’s Indigenous Students’ Association.

Dennis says he didn’t have a hand in the actual operations of these schools, but it was his theories that paved the way for those institutions to be created.

King said that though Ryerson did have good relationships with some Indigenous peoples, they were primarily Christian Mississaugas who embraced the religious conversion.


“Certainly Ryerson had friendships among Methodist and Anglican Indigenous people, but that does not excuse the tremendous harm he did to people who rejected his views and rejected that philosophy of education and rejected the very notion of residential schools,” said King.

“This column gives them an opportunity to ignore calls to critically reflect on Ryerson’s legacy and his history,” King said. “It really provides a cover. It’s a move to innocence for people who refuse to engage in the discussion.”


Ryerson University has published several statements acknowledging Egerton Ryerson’s involvement and has committed to “respectful relationships with Aboriginal communities.”


  1. This is a well written story. thank you for helping clarify some of the history on this issue.

  2. What a lot of politically correct nonsense. Egerton Ryerson and his times needs historical context not self righteous propaganda. Of course Egerton Ryerson’s times were much different from the present when he was building public education in what became Ontario. Please notice that treaty indigenous people in this country still have their education controlled by the federal government with funding levels much lower than public and Catholic schools funded by Ontario and the other provinces. Consider the fact that Egerton Ryerson actually examined how Indigenous people could receive education in a changing Upper Canada. That in my view is something to be praised. At any rate I am against changing my University’s name. Ryerson University fittingly celebrates a person who worked hard to build public education. In addition, we have all worked hard to build the Ryerson brand and this kind of nonsense reduces that work. Tom Thorne (RTA68)

  3. What’s is sad about this is that I ended up here trying to chase info that was totally overlooked in an article from the National Post about the statue. And I was there in the first place because finding out our Ministry of transport, Laurie Scott, had a ProudBoy (from 2017 at least seen on Twitter and Scaffold) supporter as an advisor until yesterday Feb 11, 2021! But the National Post quoted that same guy who was just working with our Ontario government days ago who said ““At the end of the day, I think it’s because these are people who know they’ll never do anything great enough to have a statue erected of themselves,” said Darbyshire” He was referring to the Bipoc protesters. And that’s why statues and plaques matter so much. The comments below that article trying to evade Ryerson’s history there were racist sympathetic.

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