By Natalie Michie
On Saturday, the Egerton Ryerson statue on Gould Street was defaced by Black Lives Matter – Toronto (BLM-TO) protesters in an art-based action that called for defunding the police.
Protesters poured pink paint on the statue and put up a sign that read “Tear down monuments that represent slavery, colonialism and violence.”
Along with Ryerson’s statue, protesters also tagged the John A. Macdonald statue at Queen’s Park and the statue of King Edward VII located behind the legislative building.
These statues were targeted because they immortalize historical figures who contributed to the oppression of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour in Canada.
King Edward VII was a British monarch in the colonial era and his statue serves as a reminder of Canada’s violent colonial past.
Both John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson had a significant role in the creation of Canada’s residential school system, which targeted Indigenous children and violently removed them from their communities in an effort to assimilate them into colonial Euro-Canadian culture.
Children endured physical, mental and sexual abuse in residential schools and were punished for speaking their language and practicing traditions or ceremonies from their communities.
Residential schools in Canada operated between the 1870s and the 1990s and have resulted in intergenerational trauma that impacts Indigenous communities to this day.
The defacing of the three statues comes after worldwide protests demanding the removal of statues and symbols that enshrine systemic racism.
The call to remove the Egerton Ryerson statue has been ongoing for years within the Ryerson community, but the school has never officially agreed to remove the statue or change the name of the university.
In June, Maaz Khan, a Ryerson business technology management graduate, started a petition demanding the removal of the statue. Since then, it’s received over 9,000 signatures.
In an email to The Eyeopener on Saturday, Ryerson said that they “understand and expect disagreements” with regards to the statue. They added that they have no plans as of now to remove the statue, saying “this is a decision where we will need to engage our entire community including our students, faculty, staff and nearly 200,000 alumni.”
“I believe it is an incredibly valuable attribute of any university that controversial subjects are discussed publicly, attitudes are challenged, and alternatives are suggested and considered—sometimes this involves protests like the one we experienced this weekend,” Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi wrote in a statement Tuesday.
Lachemi added that safety can mean different things for different community members based on their lived experience, which is why it’s important “to examine, discuss and debate issues that are deeply intertwined with our individual and collective histories.”
The paint has since been washed off the statue.
At around 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, three protesters were arrested at Queen’s Park and taken into police custody. What followed was a rally outside of 52 division Toronto Police Station by protesters demanding the release of those arrested.
“This was a peaceful protest. No harm was done to anybody,” he said. “More cops were out trying to protect a statue than are out protecting Black and Indigenous lives and that’s a shame.”
The rally grew in numbers as the night went on and protesters refused to leave until the three arrested were released. At around 3 a.m. Sunday morning, Black Lives Matter Toronto tweeted a live video announcing that all those arrested had been released.
The protesters have been charged with three counts of mischief each and are due to appear in court September 30, police said.
On Sunday morning, BLM-TO members held a press conference in front of the defaced Egerton Ryerson statue.
Syrus Marcus Ware, an organizer with BLM-TO, said that Egerton Ryerson “brutalized Indigenous communities for generations.”
“Why would you want to keep a monument to that?” Ware said. “This is not somebody we should revere. This is not somebody we should celebrate.”
Ware added that the “biggest monument to slavery and colonialism arguably is the police and prison system.”
Former 2018 Toronto mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi, who is a lawyer for one of the three people who were arrested on Saturday, said she waited “on standby for over 12 hours” and that her client was “denied access to counsel” throughout the day, aside from being granted two phone calls.
In a tweet Saturday, Toronto police claimed they gave detainees access to legal counsel and that those arrested “declined to sign the release forms to leave custody.”
BLM-TO refuted these claims, with Gebresellassi noting she was not allowed to speak or consult with her client about the conditions of the release forms and that “it would be irresponsible for any Canadian to sign away their rights or to sign documents without having a phone call with a lawyer.”
In a statement Sunday, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said the claims around access to counsel and the custody of the three individuals were a “false narrative.”
BLM-TO members are calling for defunding of the police, starting immediately with a budget cut of 50 percent.
This story has been updated to include Lachemi’s comment and confirm that the paint has been washed off the Egerton Ryerson statue.