By Kiernan Green
There’s a lack of education of Indigenous issues among Ryerson’s student body, Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) members Camryn Harlick and Susanne Nyaga say.
Ryerson’s recent push for Truth and Reconciliation efforts makes this even more significant. The office of Equity and Community Inclusion released a community consultation report in January of this year, outlining several steps the university plans to take, including the addition of a contextual plaque in front of the Egerton Ryerson statue.
Ryerson is a controversial figure credited with creating Ontario’s compulsory public school system and the Indian Residential School system which had “a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people across Canada,” according to the university’s report.
Ryerson’s statue was unveiled on May 24, 1889 (Queen Victoria’s 70th birthday) in front of what was then the Normal School on Gould Street, which he had established in 1847. When the Normal School building was demolished in the 1960s, only the southern wall (now the archway for the Ryerson Athletic Centre) and the statue were preserved.
The statue’s controversy hit the mainstream in 2015 with the release of the Canadian Commission for Truth and Reconciliation report, which brought Ryerson’s involvement in the residential school system to public attention. Two years later, the university responded with a statement honouring the “history and contributions” of their namesake, but acknowledged his role in Canadian residential schools.
By 2017, the RSU launched a full campaign called Colonialism 150 as a protest to the celebration of Canada’s 150 years since confederation.
According to the community consultation report, the statue’s proposed plaque would outline Ryerson’s involvement in the residential school system, which “robbed many Indigenous Peoples of their culture and left them with psychological, emotional and physical damage.”
“As an Indigenous person, I didn’t even know what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was until a year and a half ago,” said Camryn Harlick, outgoing vice-president equity of the RSU who is Métis and Haudenosaunee.
“I have to know, because I’m living it,” said Harlick. “But for students who aren’t, I can see why you wouldn’t know about it.”
According to Phyllis McKenna, CESAR’s vice-president equity and campaigns whose Indigenous background is M’Chigeeng First Nation from Manitoulin Island, every student has a responsibility to enact truth and reconciliation at Ryerson, and to “repair the damage that comes from colonization.” She referred to the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report from 2015.
McKenna said the addition of a plaque in front of the Egerton statue is “a start,” but that the statue’s removal is “crucial.” She said that students should collaborate within their communities to see how they can implement ideas of truth and reconciliation in their studies or personal lives.
Harlick said he doesn’t blame students who don’t understand issues of truth and reconciliation on Ryerson’s campus, like the call from some students to have the Ryerson statue removed and his name disassociated from the university completely. Both Harlick and RSU president Susanne Nyaga said education is the answer to why Ryerson’s students lack an awareness of truth and reconciliation efforts on campus.
The education students receive from kindergarten to university regarding Indigenous culture is “slim to none,” said Nyaga. She said that while students might have heard about residential schools, they “don’t understand how colonization has actually impacted the daily lives of Indigenous students and how they access this space.”
“The longer the people aren’t educating themselves, the more of us are dying,” Harlick said.
He referred to the “injustice” against Indigenous Canadians Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie, and the “Millennium Scoop” which according to StatsCan data from 2011, had Indigenous children account for 48 per cent of the Canadian foster care system, despite making up seven per cent of Canadian children.
“If there was more awareness, we could actually work towards justice, because people would be angry,” said Harlick. “I can’t imagine people learning about what happened with the residential schools and not want that statue gone.”
Sarah Dennis, a member of Nipissing First Nation and a second-year social work student, said in a message to The Eyeopener that “retainable knowledge of [Indigenous] experiences for settlers to better understand colonial violence, systemic racism and false idolatry,” are important for the continued presence of Ryerson’s Indigenous community.
The longer the people aren’t educating themselves, the more of us are dying
“It’s not the responsibility of Indigenous peoples to do the exhausting work of validating, and re-addressing TRC initiatives,” she said. “Indigenous folks have been working themselves into the ground for the past 20 years carving out space for our community to even exist at Ryerson.”
When The Eye last reported in mid-March, Ryerson media relations officer Dasha Pasiy said a working group comprised of students and faculty was formed to discuss the community consultation report calls to action, including the creation of the new Ryerson statue plaque, which the community consultation report stated would be unveiled in winter 2018. Other topics included the creation of an Indigenous language course and the hiring of more Indigenous faculty.
In March, Pasiy told The Eye the working group planned to have their first meeting later that month. She did not confirm the meeting took place in time for publication.