By Natalie Michie
Hundreds of Ryerson community members have signed an open letter to university president Mohamed Lachemi demanding that the Egerton Ryerson statue be removed from campus. The letter was released last week by the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR), and has gained more than 600 signatures from students, alumni and faculty members.
This letter came nearly a week after protesters with Black Lives Matter – Toronto (BLM-TO) splashed pink paint on the statue. Protesters tagged the Egerton Ryerson statue because of the historical figure’s involvement in the creation of residential schools in Canada, which violently removed Indigenous children from their communities in an effort to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture.
The art-based action resulted in the arrests of three protesters, who were released after about 17 hours of being detained. They are all facing criminal charges and are due to appear in court on Sept. 30.
The pink paint from last week’s demonstration was washed away last Wednesday but the statue was tagged again by the end of the week with green paint. No one has claimed responsibility for the second defacement of the statue.
CESAR’s letter offers full support and solidarity with the BLM-TO protesters, demanding that Lachemi “release a public statement calling on the police and Crown Attorney to drop any charges associated with the artistic protest of the Ryerson statue.”
The letter also states that “anger and frustration” have been building for some time within Ryerson’s community because of “the University’s refusal to remove the statue.” CESAR’s statement references a petition started in June by a Ryerson graduate calling for the removal of the statue, which has now gained more than 9,500 signatures.
Former Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) president Susanne Nyaga and former vice-president equity Camryn Harlick first called for the removal of the statue as part of their Colonialism 150 project. The list of demands also asked for the renaming of the school.
The school acknowledged the racist history of its namesake in a plaque installed beside the statue, but never officially rejected the proposal to remove it.
Many Ryerson faculty members have signed CESAR’s letter, including the Chair of Professional Communication, the Chair of the School of Interior Design, the Chair of the School of Fashion, and the Chair of Aboriginal Education Council.
Kikélola Roach, the Unifor Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson, also signed the letter and spoke out on Twitter saying “Egerton Ryerson was an architect of the genocidal Residential School system…Hundreds of us (and growing) have asked the President to use his voice to call for the criminal charges to be dropped.”
16 Ryerson-based groups and organizations have signed CESAR’s letter. This includes the School of Performance Student Union who released a statement last Wednesday calling out Ryerson for upholding colonialism on campus through the statue.
“It is naive of the University to expect that reconciliation and justice can occur while an homage to a man, whose actions towards the achievement of white domination in this country have destroyed Indigenous communities and stolen the lives of thousands of children, stands in the centre of our campus,” the statement read.
The School of Disability Studies also released a statement in solidarity with the protesters, saying, “We share their critique and we defend their right to engage in peaceful protest always.”
In its statement, the School of Disability Studies added that the Egerton Ryerson statue celebrates “colonialist, racist and ableist values” and that “the statue’s ‘watchful presence’ at the centre of campus tells Black, Indigenous and disabled students that they do not belong at the university.”
CESAR’s letter draws attention to the irony in criminalizing protesters who poured paint on the statue, but allowing the statue to be “routinely modified by engineering students as a campus prank.”
Rodney Diverlus, co-founder of BLM-TO and Ryerson School of Performance graduate, spoke about this double standard at a press conference the day following the protest.
“Yesterday made me think about my first orientation week. There’s a competition amongst the [engineering students]… where they’re tasked to go around the city and find monuments, city buildings, relics, and they’re actually encouraged to deface them as much as possible; to take Ryerson engineering stickers and plaster them all over,” he said. He pointed out that some engineering stickers are still visible on the Egerton Ryerson statue.
CESAR’s letter says that this double standard makes it “clear that the intent here is not to preserve the statue itself, but to squash political dissidence.”
In addition to removal of the statue, CESAR is calling for the university to install a permanent plaque that implicates Egerton Ryerson as the architect of the residential school system.
Further, the letter suggested that “alongside this installation, original agreements of this land could be represented such as the Two-Row Wampum and the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address,” done in consultation with Indigenous community members and the founding nations of the land that Ryerson occupies.
CESAR noted that removing the statue is only the “first step towards ending the glorification and whitewashing of our colonial history, and acknowledging the true legacy of Egerton Ryerson’s role in Canada’s residential schooling system.”
“Only by accepting and confronting this truth can the University engage in reconciliation,” the letter read.
Lachemi has not yet publicly responded to CESAR’s letter and demands.