By Miranda Black
In early September, I received an invitation to be part of the advisory committee on university renaming. I was the only Indigenous student who had been invited. However, within four weeks of receiving the invitation, I quit the committee.
As a woman of both Bay of Quinte Mohawk and white ancestry, I recognize that the decisions I make are with respect to elders and community members and it is important to act as if I am living in the shoes of my ancestors. This means that when I enter a room, I do not come with my own agenda.
Instead, my responsibility is to make sure that my friends, elders and mentors are well-informed of the decisions I make. Sitting on the advisory committee meant that I had to be accountable to the over 300 Indigenous students, faculty and staff on campus and the external community who Egerton Ryerson’s namesake has harmed most.
However, the confidentiality agreement that the committee wanted me to sign opposed that value. Had I been willing to sign the agreement, I would have signed off my ability to be accountable to the Indigenous community at X University.
Along with this, I would have been agreeing to only speak to the media using a briefing sheet that would be written by the provost and staff. I remained strong in my opinion that I would be speaking with the media about how the renaming committee was harmful to Indigenous and Black students.
In response, I was told by Christa Hinds, manager of strategic partnerships and human resources, to “remember to be kind.” However, as Indigenous Peoples, we have been exploited by colonial Canada and its institutions for over 150 years. There is no time for kindness when it comes to having our voices heard—there is only time to be firm, push forward and be strong as our communities still face generational trauma and persistent genocide linked to the legacy of Egerton Ryerson.
The push to keep things confidential was in part to uphold the integrity of committee members as they were concerned their words might be used against them. I believe that this was to protect committee members even if they were to speak anti-Indigenous sentiments. To me, the only good rationale for the confidentiality agreement would be something along the lines of, ‘people have the right to reclaim themselves before being taken out of context.’ To me, this all sounded so very, very wrong.
The university may speculate that this committee has been put together to decide the process that they will take to rename the school. Yet, in the first meeting, provost and vice-president, academic Jennifer Simpson announced that president Mohamed Lachemi expected to have two to three potential names on his desk by the end of that meeting. This shows me that the university is not committed to reconciling the pain and trauma that the residential school system has caused to Indigenous Peoples. Instead, it is pushing forward with a process that does more harm than good.
All in all, the renaming committee is a reflection of white supremacy. A room full of university funders, public relations people and those who make more than $150K per year—with a few tokens thrown in—is not a committee that values Indigenous or Black lives. It certainly does not recognize the intergenerational harm that Egerton Ryerson’s legacy has left Indigenous communities to bear the burden of. This committee does not reflect the recommendations of the Standing Strong Task Force or the university’s own commitments to Truth and Reconciliation.
As Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island, most of us knew the traumatic past of the residential school system. I knew for a long time that unmarked graves at residential schools existed, but I did not know how many bodies lay underground. In poems that I wrote in 2015, I dedicated my university degree to my ancestors who never made it out of school and instead wound up tortured, abused and buried underneath the ground.
But even after the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015, settler Canadians seem to have forgotten the extent of pain that the residential school system caused. Since May 2021, it has been difficult to ignore this pain. It is a year when settler Canadians are finally listening to the truths of the residential school system. At this point in time, I wonder how the injustice of the renaming committee isn’t making front-page news. This university was once the Toronto Normal School, a teachers college that was established in 1847 and oversaw the training of some residential school teachers.
Inside the university, I have friends who are part of the Wreckonciliation campaign that have helped to initiate action on the name change. I also know folks who are facing criminal charges and conditions of their arrest after pulling down the Egerton Ryerson statue in June. This thereby means that president Lachemi’s complacency to remove the statue (after petitions and open letters had been submitted to the president on multiple occasions) has led Indigenous students, friends and family to be entered into the criminal justice system.
Outside of the university, my relationships with elders from Six Nations has made me witness to the pain and agony that residential school has caused them. I have watched grandmothers cry when telling stories of being raised at boarding schools where the treatment was anything but humane. I have spoken to women about how the impacts of residential schools continue to perpetuate grief and intergenerational harm. I have been to grief ceremonies where residential school survivors are able to list the names of children who never came back to class. These are the people I am most accountable to.
As the president moves forward with plans to rename the university, I sincerely ask that he revise this committee so that Indigenous students and community elders are at the table. There is no room for this committee to just be a PR stunt. There needs to be accountability, transparency and heartfelt action in order to change the legacy of the school and be liable for the 73 years that this institution has bore Egerton Ryerson as its namesake.
Miranda Black is an MASc Candidate, Environmental Applied Science and Management and Onkwehonewe student whose lineage stems from the Mohawk of the Bay of Quinte. She is dedicated to expanding Indigenous-led environmental stewardship and protecting land and water resources. For her thesis research, she has been awarded the 2020-2021 Geoffrey Bruce Fellowship in Canadian Freshwater Policy and she is the events coordinator of Water Allies, a project of the New College at U of T, that strives to hold decolonial, feminist and anti-racist conversations about water protection.