By Alexandra Holyk
Ryerson students and alumni are once again calling for the removal of the Egerton Ryerson statue on campus in protest of his role in the establishment of Canada’s residential school system.
The demand is resurfacing after recent anti-racism protests in the United States saw the toppling of statues tied to colonialism and slavery, including two Christopher Columbus statues in Virginia and Massachusetts.
Maaz Khan, a 2019 business technology management graduate, started a petition to remove the statue on June 7. Since then, it’s received almost 8,000 signatures.
“We’re celebrating a person who stood for everything we stand against now,” Khan said, adding that having the statue contradicts Ryerson’s core values of equity, diversity and inclusion.
Egerton Ryerson’s statue was unveiled on May 24, 1889 in front of what was then the Normal School on Gould Street, Toronto’s first teacher’s college, which he established in 1847.
Kathleen Edwards, a recent graduate of Ryerson’s film production program of mixed Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) and settler descent, said seeing the statue on campus reminded her of a past that “modern institutions [haven’t] made up for,” and shows how little is being done for Indigenous people.
“I think these statues or the addition of a plaque are just a constant reminder that the racism is deeply embedded…in the design of these institutions.”
On July 1, 2017, former Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) president Susanne Nyaga and former vice-president equity Camryn Harlick presented a list of demands for the university as part of their Colonialism 150 project, which included removing the statue and changing the name of the university. Ryerson agreed to some of the demands included, but never officially decided on the statue’s removal.
Edwards mentioned that the campaign faced a lot of backlash from students, particularly targeted against Harlick.
“An Indigenous person speaks out about their own oppression—no one listens,” Edwards said, adding that Harlick experienced anti-Indigenous racism for being vocal about his campaign.
Current RSU president Ali Yousaf was part of the RSU executive team during Colonialism 150 as vice-president operations, however, he claimed he was not aware of the statement released by Nyaga and Harlick at the time.
After hearing about the new petition, Yousaf said the RSU will support students “if this is something [they] feel passionate about.” He also mentioned that the team will work with Indigenous community partners—such as Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services and the Indigenous Students’ Association—to better educate board members.
“As a non-Indigenous student, who hasn’t had similar lived experience as my Indigenous peers, I think that it’s my role to be an ally and step aside so that more important voices can be heard,” he said.
In January 2018, Ryerson published its Truth and Reconciliation report, which highlighted ways the university would work to increase the visibility of its Indigenous community members and recognize their history and cultures. The report pointed out that the community wanted the university to acknowledge Egerton Ryerson’s involvement in developing the residential school system, however, there were no mentions of the next steps for the statue.
Later that April, The Eyeopener reported that the university held a meeting to discuss moving the statue to another place. However, in June of the same year, a plaque acknowledging Egerton Ryerson’s controversial history was placed next to the statue instead.
Third-year psychology student Joey Vong said she thinks the plaque is “really, genuinely next to useless.”
“If you read the plaque itself, it doesn’t even cover all the trauma and all of the abuse and all of the assimilation and everything that really happened in the residential schools,” said Vong.
Jacqui Gingras, an associate sociology professor, said the inauguration of the plaque seemed to be a collaborative effort, but agrees with Vong in that it’s not enough.
“There’s still this quiet trauma that is being experienced, especially by Indigenous students,” said Gingras. “And trauma and learning do not go well together.”
Gingras added that the plaque should remain, but the statue should come down.
In an email to The Eye, Ryerson administration said it has not made any decisions regarding the statue. “The university is always open to hearing from our community members…when they have concerns and/or suggestions,” the email read.
Gingras said she’s sent multiple letters to university president Mohamed Lachemi about removing the statue and encouraged her students—including Vong—to do the same, but the university’s response has always been that the statue isn’t coming down.
Khan also mentioned he plans on taking the next step in calling for changing the name of the university, but will discuss this with Lachemi once he receives a response regarding the petition.
“In an ideal world, we would change the names of institutions [that are named after] violent, colonial, racist individuals,” Edwards said. “We can’t move forward with reconciliation unless action is taken.”
Gingras and Vong agreed that the university should change its namesake, as it would bring the university closer to its goal of reconciliation.
“At the end of the day, Ryerson’s just a name,” Vong said.