By Libaan Osman
Tensions were high at the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) Board of Directors’ meeting on Tuesday, when discussions about how to support Indigenous students and potential lobbying for the removal of the Egerton Ryerson statue began.
The discussion saw some board members express frustrations after RSU president Ali Yousaf refused to sign an open letter created by Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) demanding the university to remove the statue on Gould Street.
Senate representative George Carter, who pushed the motion forward, said it was in an effort to publicly acknowledge the efforts of Indigenous students and show support in recognizing their sovereignty.
The motion called on the RSU to make a public statement in solidarity with Indigenous students, affirming their commitment to addressing issues regarding Egerton Ryerson, as well as supporting the students’ efforts to remove the statue.
The motion also mentioned a request for RSU vice-president equity Vaishali Vinayak to organize anti-Indigenous racism response training for all members of the board, with separate training offered for RSU members. Additionally, it called for the RSU to sign the CESAR open letter demanding the university to remove the Egerton statue.
“I feel like actions in this motion are at least some good first steps that we can take as a board to show our students that we care about their interests and needs,” Carter said.
Instead of signing onto CESAR’s letter, the board voted to amend the motion and have the RSU draft its own letter within a week—dedicated to supporting Indigenous students and calling on the task force to remove the statue.
Before the decision, an hour-long conversation was held among the BoD with questions raised about the delay in support for Indigenous students and how the RSU intended to address calls for the statue to be taken down.
Egerton Ryerson played a significant role in the creation of the residential school system in Canada, which targeted Indigenous children and violently removed them from their communities in an effort to assimilate them into colonial Euro-Canadian culture.
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 university announced the creation of a task force in September to examine the school’s namesake and recommend a potential course of action on how to proceed forward with memorializing controversial figures.
Questions raised on why RSU won’t sign CESAR’s letter
RSU president Ali Yousaf was against signing the open letter from CESAR, noting that CESAR and the RSU are their own separate entities.
Included in CESAR’s letter was a signature list of those that signed that included Yousaf’s name, which he states is untrue and someone else used his name without his knowledge or consent.
“To be frank, I’m a little disappointed with the due diligence done by the curators of the letter, if anyone can sign anyone’s name, it very much diminishes the quality of signatures it has managed to garner,” wrote Yousaf in a statement to The Eyeopener. “I represent an organization that speaks for 40,000 full-time students on campus. We would much rather, draft a letter of our own.”
Other board members argued that because RSU and CESAR are separate, it shouldn’t prevent the board from signing onto the letter.
“Will you support Indigenous students? Will you condemn a statue that represents a racist colonial history?”
“I know that I and a few other board members have signed the letter already and this motion is just for the RSU as an organization to hop on and put our support behind that. I don’t believe anything there would go against our jurisdiction, we are able to make statements,” said Alexandra Nash, a Faculty of Arts director.
Board of Governors representative David Jardine said a few course unions and student groups have already signed onto the letter and it seemed to be what a lot of members of the RSU also supported.
According to CESAR’s letter, as of Nov. 2, at least 121 full-time faculty, 793 undergraduate students, 208 alumni and nine representatives from campus groups have signed onto the letter.
Jardine said they think it was important to have the RSU advocating for this as well since the union has a direct line to the university.
Ongoing calls to remove Egerton statue
The statue has been an ongoing controversial topic on campus. In 2017, the president and vice-president equity of RSU criticized celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederacy as part of a campaign called Colonialism 150. The project aimed to bring awareness to both the university’s and Canada’s colonial past.
In July 2017, the RSU submitted 11 demands to the university on how they can address Indigenous issues on campus, including the removal of the statue and to change its name completely to sever ties with Egerton Ryerson.
Back in 2018, university officials discussed the idea of potentially removing the statue from campus and placing it at a new location.
Instead, the university, along with Ryerson’s Aboriginal Education Council, agreed to place a plaque beside the statue that mentioned the role of Egerton Ryerson in the creation of residential schools.
Maaz Khan, an alumnus from the business technology program at Ryerson, created a petition in June calling for the removal of the statue. The petition has garnered over 10,000 signatures online.
“Students are just asking, ‘Will you support Indigenous students? Will you condemn a statue that represents a racist colonial history?’ It’s really the least we can do,” said Steph Rychlo, a Faculty of Communications Services director, at the BoD meeting.
The Eyeopener spoke to some students in the summer who said the plaque currently in place on campus isn’t enough to make up for the history of Egerton Ryerson. On Nov. 10, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi released the names of the 14 individuals that will make up the task force. It includes students, faculty and others.
It is completely inappropriate that it’s taken us this long to acknowledge that the statue is terrible
The Eye reached out to the university to speak with the members of the task force, but were told that they are currently not taking interview requests.
According to the university, the task force will examine the school’s relationship with the statue and submit a final report with recommendations on actions the university can take regarding it.
The university has not yet announced when the final report is expected to be released.
RSU’s plan to lobby the university comes under fire
Yousaf told the BoD he’s been directly in contact with Lachemi about the task force and will meet with them to discuss the next steps for the RSU. Initially, he said they plan on sending out a survey to get feedback from students on the statue.
“We will get in touch with the task force and we will ask them on which directions they’re moving and we will give them the students’ opinion,” said Yousaf.
Other board members chimed in and said Indigenous students have already stated they want the statue removed and didn’t want to wait on the task force before making their support for them clear.
Nash said another survey would cause more frustration when the Ryerson community has already made their position clear on the statue. “This isn’t a new issue by any means, the university has taken its time convening this task force, I don’t think the RSU should be following in its footsteps.”
Although Carter was glad the task force and the RSU are in communication, he said if they don’t push forward with the current motion, Indigenous students might feel like they can’t trust the RSU in raising their concerns to the university.
Jardine also questioned why the RSU didn’t send out the survey earlier. “If we really wanted to send out more surveys, we’ve had seven months. Why haven’t we sent one already?” they said.
Gabriele Douglas, a Faculty of Arts director, said Indigenous students have already stated their thoughts and the RSU should respect their call for the removal of the statue.
“It’s their heritage, this is something that’s offensive to them and that is enough for us to support their decision and their efforts. I don’t think we need to do [the survey] at all.”
Yousaf agreed with Douglas and said the RSU has been doing “whatever they can” to lobby the university about this issue and that he’s brought this up in every meeting he’s had with Lachemi. Yousaf also pushed to table the motion until a survey was done and sent out to students.
Rychlo asked RSU vice-president equity Viashali Vinayak—who reads a land acknowledgement before the start of every BoD meeting—for her thoughts on the topic and what the acknowledgement meant to her.
“I read the land acknowledgement because I respect the Indigenous students,” said Vinayak. “As [Yousaf] mentioned before, Ryerson University is taking a step to address this.”
Vinayak said all executives want to be on the same page and don’t want to sign one letter and make a decision. Yousaf added that the RSU will write and draft a letter of its own to the university instead and send it over the BoD before doing so.
To alleviate concerns raised by Yousaf and the executive team, Jardine brought forward an amendment for the RSU to release a letter within a week, stating its support for Indigenous students in the removal of the statue.
Douglas said this shouldn’t even be put to a vote and argued that if the RSU drafted its own letter that it would not only be redundant but also be speaking over the voices of Indigenous students that put the CESAR letter together. She also asked if anyone on the RSU’s equity committee was Indigenous.
“It is completely inappropriate that it’s taken us this long to acknowledge that the statue is terrible and it’s been years of people expressing their concerns about it,” said Douglas. “To be honest with you, we’re lucky [CESAR’s letter is] not asking to change the name of the whole university.”
A few board members opposed the amendment to the motion but it still passed.
DISCLAIMER: Jardine is a volunteer and writer with The Eye’s fun and satire, business and communities sections