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.