By Tyler Griffin
On June 6, 2021, I received a photo that stopped me dead in my tracks. Our photo editor Jes Mason—who was covering an ‘X’ University sit-in at the Egerton Ryerson statue on campus, following the discovery of 215 children’s remains at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.—captured the moment the controversial statue fell. All I could say was, holy shit.
Unable to get anything else out, I showed the image to those immediately around me. After a chorus of gasps and some comments on how emotional it was to see it finally come down, a friend quietly said:
What took so long?
Very good question. It was June 2017, almost five years prior, when the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) released its campaign criticizing Ryerson’s “Canada 150” celebrations commemorating the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. “Colonialism 150” was intended to bring attention to our country’s colonial roots and Indigenous histories, which existed thousands of years before the signing of the British North America Act in 1867. The campaign featured 11 formal recommendations for the university, including the removal of Egerton Ryerson’s name and campus statue from the institution.
Initial reactions were polarizing. Comments flooded the RSU’s campaign posts on Facebook with words like “ignorant,” “get over it already” and “thank god for colonialism.” That year’s RSU executive team erupted with in-fighting. The Indigenous student who put forward the campaign was ostracized, threatened, stalked and eventually forced to drop out entirely.
The conversation surrounding Egerton Ryerson, his role in the creation of residential schools and our university’s proud display of his namesake and image looks much, much different today.
We’re quick to deem campus activists as ‘too radical’ or ‘too reactionary’ to take seriously—until their message makes its way into the mainstream discourse. Last summer, in the midst of sweeping Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality across North America, the statue was defaced multiple times. A petition to remove the statue amassed over 10,000 signatures, and Ryerson University created a task force to “examine Egerton Ryerson’s history” and make recommendations to “reconcile [the] namesake’s legacy.”
“The difference was that when non-Indigenous students brought that forward, it was much better received,” the student behind Colonialism 150 told me. “It’s just unfortunate for the Indigenous students that have literally lost their education and lost their livelihood in different ways.”
In 2017, Ryerson had an opportunity to get ahead of the curve, set itself apart as a leader in social justice issues and actually put its money where its mouth is when it comes to reconciliation. University leadership instead chose to sit idly by, hoping for it all to pass. Lacking the foresight and ability to listen to its student leaders, the reputation they’re left with is one of PR blunders every two to four months.
The Eye stands with the Indigenous community at Ryerson in calling on university leadership to do what it should have done when presented with the opportunity years ago
Ryerson’s track record in this regard is actually remarkably consistent. Take for example their cancelled special constables program, which they decided to scrap not after years of campaigning against police presence on campus by the Black Liberation Collective, but in the midst of worldwide protests against anti-Black racism immediately after the death of George Floyd.
While the statue remains out of sight and out of mind (and the world continues to spin), the name remains. And as the school’s ‘community consultations’ and task forces continue their glacial approach to social change, Ryerson suddenly decided it actually could change names quite easily. To the unwelcome surprise of students, Ryerson announced last month that it would rebrand the Faculty of Communication and Design into “The Creative School” at the cost of approximately $200,000 to $250,000.
For this year’s Frosh Issue, news editor Sarah Tomlinson wrote a brief history of the Egerton Ryerson conversation and ‘X’ University movement. The intention was to catch up anyone who might be new to this conversation on the most pressing issue facing our community, so you can trace its origins and how we got here.
You may have noticed in this issue, and in our online coverage throughout the summer, that we’ve continued calling it Ryerson University—not ‘X’ University—in our copy. That’s not because we want to continue calling it Ryerson, but because our function is to provide students, staff, faculty and the rest of the community with fact-based reporting and an accurate institutional memory. Which means calling the university by its name, not what we’d rather it be named.
But make no mistake: The Eye stands with the Indigenous community at Ryerson in calling on university leadership to do what it should have done when presented with the opportunity years ago, and what the institution itself has proven can easily be done, if only they cared about Indigenous reconciliation as much as their brand recognition.
If you’re new here, I hope you keep in mind, throughout your short time at Ryerson, that you—an individual on the grassroots level—hold a tremendous amount of agency. Post-secondary institutions maintain the status quo by forcing so much work and bullshit down your throat that you don’t have the time or energy to care about these issues until you’re gone. This is by design.
But COVID-19 has pushed these conversations so far into the mainstream that the only way to ignore them is by choice. As we gradually return to campus and some sense of normalcy, I hope we don’t lose that sense of radicalness and refusal to accept the way things have always been. And I hope that this year, and for the foreseeable future, we can continue to use our platform to tell your stories and, together, enact change.
Is the Eyeopener now editorially resigned to a name change? From what I see and follow the Task Force is a done deal to remove Egerton Ryerson’s name from the university. So are you saying that you endorse this change whenever it happens? In my view you should now cover both sides of this issue. Personally I am opposed to a name change because I have worked hard since my graduation in 1968 to build the reputation of Ryerson. Sadly, what I see at the moment is rounds of political correctness larded with words like “colonialism” but little effort to really examine Egerton Ryerson’s times, context and considerable contributions to Ontario education. A university worth the name would be examining this issue very carefully and I don’t see that happening. So when will you start covering all sides of this story? Don’t take the Eyeopener down the one-way trail of propaganda. Open this issue to some real coverage and some opinion that is truly fact based. I say this as the first editor of the Eyeopener.
Residential school denialism is often about the rejection of facts to undermine the Truth and Reconciliation efforts. It also distorts the truth to manipulate it. What happened at residential “schools” is well documented, researched, and conclude (and acknowledged by the Canadian government) that “cultural genocide” was committed. According to the UN’s definition, what happened in Canada is/was a genocide and this was also confirmed by the Canadian Historical Association based on historical evidence.
Egerton Ryerson did design the model for residential “schools” that was implemented that was responsible for genocide. There has been 154 years of one-way propaganda occurring already here in Canada and that continues today with people’s denialism of the harm and genocide caused by residential “schools” and insisting that Egerton Ryerson was a good guy because of all the good he did and “it was the times” and totally acceptable to “kill the Indian from the child”, apparently.
After World War II, the perpetrators in Nazi Germany were put on trail for their crimes. There was no, “let’s put this in context” because Nazi Germany also did a lot of good for those they deemed pure enough. They committed a genocide and were held accountable for their crimes. Except the ones that fled with the help of the church, of course.
But that is not what happened here in Canada. History was erased and rewritten so that people did not have to acknowledge this past and dark stain on Canada’s history, present, and future (helpful reminder: some residential “schools” were still operating until 1996). So today, people (even the first editor of the Eyeopener) can still deny Egerton Ryerson’s role in the harmful and still devesting effects of residential “schools”. Here, the architects of genocide were celebrated. They got statues, a place in history books lauded as educators, and schools named after them.
Also, another friendly reminder of needing to put things into context. In fact, many did came forward to criticize residential “schools” at the time. Indigenous parents, students, community leaders, church employees who ran the “schools”, and even the Department of Indian Affairs medical expert which sadly was all downplayed and ignored by federal and church officials.
So, lets briefly talk about all the good Egerton Ryerson did in the name of education. 1. Residential “schools”. 2. He legislated separate schools for Black kids (which remained in effect until 1965). 3. He helped create separate schools for poor kids (which remained until the 1930s). Separate, but not equal. That is his legacy.
FYI: there is no such thing as opinions that are also fact based. Please stop conflating these two things. Opinion is defined as: a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.
Example of an opinion: denial of Egerton Ryerson’s role in residential “schools” because he also did a lot of “good”. Fact: Egerton Ryerson played a role in genocide in being the architect of residential “schools”. Spot the difference?