Canada is generally seen as a bit of a teddy bear nation with regards to our politeness, rather conciliatory foreign policy and loud, blustering neighbour to the south. As an antidote to this, we have been publicly grappling with our violent colonial past for the past few years. This movement has been in the works for a while with the Truth and Reconciliation Council which was held from 2008-2015. Even more recently there have been developments in an attempt to recognise and apologise for this violent past with current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implementing an annual day for Truth and Reconciliation (which was one of 94 recommendations made by the council; only eight others have been implemented thus far) and the tearing down of monuments and renaming of public buildings which bore the mark of this shameful history.
Ryerson University was one such institution which underwent this change. Early in the 2021 fall semester it was announced that Ryerson University was going to be renamed, and using ‘X University,’ in the meantime, no doubt brought to us by the brilliant folks who somehow came up with the moniker ‘The Creative School’ to replace the perfectly functional ‘Faculty of Communication and Design.’
Don't get me wrong, I can understand the impulse to shed the taint of colonisation that seems to haunt the name of Egerton Ryerson (who was not actually alive when the Residential School System was erected) but I don’t think RU has gone about it the right way.
First, some background about the man Ryerson University was named after.
Egerton Ryerson was an influential figure in politics in education in Canada in the early to mid 19th century. He was a force behind setting up a mandatory and free school system so that regardless of poverty, children would have access to education. He supported different systems of education for Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, but advocated that Indigineous children ought to be focused on agricultural skills while also teaching them English and Christian values to provide them with a basic education on par with that of the non-Indigenous students. He didn’t invent the idea of residential schools, but his policies influenced the running of the residential schools in Canada which have had such a devastating and lasting effect.
Now I’ll come clean and admit I read this in encyclopedias (Canadian and Britannica) and I am no expert on the man or his policies. Was he racist? It wouldn’t surprise me, it was the mid 19th century after all, get with the times folks! I’m not trying to say we should all worship Ryerson and get his face on the Canadian flag or anything, I’m just providing some context for those who may not have any idea who he is. RU seems a little as if they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater (though admittedly the bathwater may have a healthy dose of lead in it).
But I digress.
The renaming of the school shows an eagerness to make superficial changes which make no structural revisions to the continuing attitude towards the prevailing poor treatment of Indigenous people. The renaming of the school displays a sycophantic desire to appear woke so that White, middle class students can feel like they’re achieving something by politicising their Instagram bio. I’m not directly attacking the university here for their actions (can they lower my GPA for slander?) I’m just using this as an example of the surface level efforts that are being made to target racism because it’s close to home (or, at least, school.)
The living conditions of Indigeous people living on reservations (according to Statistics Canada nearly a half of Indigenous people in Canada reside on reserves) are both appalling and embarrassing for a nation that prides itself on its human rights policies. This CBC article from 2019 states that about 39% of the water systems on reserves had been demarcated as being ‘high risk’ which means there are issues which pose a threat to the cleanliness of the water. The same article states that in Ontario 46% of the reserves have water systems designated as ‘high risk’ and here Toronto is, running through Name Generator to try and find an alternative name for Canada’s 16th best university. Congrats folks, you’re really doing the most.
They say it’s a start, removing the legacy of colonialism. But is trying to remove that legacy the best way to go about it? Aren’t we all taught that we ought to learn from history rather than trying to cover it up whilst patting ourselves on the back for being so progressive and forward thinking? The renaming of Ryerson University primarily feels like a method for the Board to keep themselves out of trouble without implementing any structural changes. It’s an elaborate PR stunt while Ryerson Zoom classes are suffering from racist, sexist and homophobic ‘Zoom Bombings’
So many people and organisations seem more preoccoupied with cleaning up their image than actually taking steps that will see concrete benefits for the communities and individuals who have suffered and continue to suffer because of inequality and discrimination. The amount of funding it’ll require to take all the steps that go with the name change of a massive institution could surely be used for actions that will directly benefit Indigenous communities. Rather than scraping down the words RYERSON from buildings and signs, nervously glancing around to see if anyone’s noticed the name in the past 73 years, perhaps the university can acknowledge that Egerton Ryerson, like almost everyone in history, had both positive and negative attributes and it’s silly and shallow to try and erase the shameful bits by sweeping it all under the rug.