By Alexandra Holyk and Charlize Alcaraz
The “Standing Strong” task force began a two-month-long community engagement period on Tuesday regarding the fate of the Egerton Ryerson statue.
The consultation process will be facilitated online until May 16 through a survey and a community tool kit due to the restrictions surrounding the current pandemic. The tool kit allows community members to conduct their own discussions regarding the statue, compile a report on their discussion and fill out the survey afterward. There will also be two community presentations held on March 23 and April 8.
Ryerson community members have been pushing for the statue’s removal and the university to change its name for several years.
On July 1, 2017, former Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) vice-president equity Camryn Harlick presented a list of demands to the university as part of their Colonialism 150 project, which included removing the statue and changing the name of the university. Ryerson agreed to a few of the demands included, but never officially came to a decision on the statue’s removal.
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 future steps to be taken regarding the statue.
Later that April, The Eye reported that the university held a meeting to discuss relocating the statue. However, in June of the same year, a plaque acknowledging Egerton Ryerson’s controversial history was added next to the statue instead.
When asked if the statue would be removed based on the results from community consultations, Catherine Ellis, co-chair of the task force, said all feedback will be included in the report, but added that “it’s really hard for [the task force] to guess what the outcome will be.”
“As part of our mandate to conduct a very broad, open and transparent conversation…we want to hear from as many members of the community as possible,” said Ellis.
The task force is also overseeing an in-depth research project into the history of Egerton Ryerson and his relationship with Indigenous Peoples.
“It is hard to reconcile the many different views of Egerton Ryerson’s history and legacy,” Ellis said. “We can’t separate the past from where we are now. And so we’re launching these conversations both to acknowledge our colonial past and to advance toward a future of reconciliation.”
The Eyeopener had previously reported that Indigenous community members at Ryerson disagreed with the name of the task force, saying that the task force should have used one of the local Indigenous languages as opposed to “Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win,” a Spirit name written in Cree.
In an interview in February, Canadian and Aboriginal studies assistant professor Veldon Cobourn, who is Anishinaabe from Pikwàkanagàn, said using a Cree name on non-Cree territory doesn’t honour the sovereignty of the local Indigenous nations.
“Cree is foreign to that territory. It’s still a colonial name,” he said.
Ryerson is built upon the traditional lands of the Mississauga, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, the Chippewa, the Huron and many other Indigenous Peoples.
Joanne Okimawininew Dallaire, co-chair of the Standing Strong task force as well as elder and senior advisor to the Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation for Ryerson University, said she named the task force.
Dallaire, Shadow Hawk Woman of the Wolf Clan, is Cree Omushkego with ancestry from Attawapiskat, Mattice Ontario and Hull Quebec. She is also a giver of names and clans as well as a pipe carrier, the host of a pipe ceremony where “participants would be truthful, respectful and abide by decisions and agreements that were made during the meeting time,” according to the University of Saskatchewan’s Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia.
“The name was given to anchor the process of the task force in reconciliation [and] to give the opportunity to have spirits come in and join us and guide us in a good way,” she said. “It’s really important to us that we hear all voices, whether they agree with us or whether they don’t, that’s the whole idea of the task force.”
Once community consultations are complete, the task force will compile a report based on the feedback it received and present it to university president Mohamed Lachemi, who will make the final decision regarding the fate of the Egerton Ryerson statue.
Ellis said the task force will be reaching out directly to the Indigenous Students Association, Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services and the Aboriginal Education Council. Furthermore, they will also welcome input from the faculty members that opposed the name change.
“We’re looking for what everybody wants to see happen, whether it’s the name of the university or the statue, we’re looking for all input, all things that are important to the individual voices that are going to be heard,” Ellis said.