Wilfrid Laurier University to take critical look at namesake's complex legacy

Three scholars, including a visiting Indigenous professor, will be hired to look into the "complex legacy" left by the namesake of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Early Canadian policy 'very racist' and 'very discriminatory,' says Darren Thomas

Like many early Canadian politicians, Sir Wilfrid Laurier viewed his country with a 'very colonial lens,' says Darren Thomas. That's one of the reasons the university is embarking on the Laurier Legacy Project, a multi-faceted public history initiative. (National Archives of Canada/The Canadian Press)

Three scholars, including a visiting Indigenous professor, will be hired to look into the "complex legacy" left by the namesake of Wilfrid Laurier University.

Funded by the university, the Laurier Legacy Project hopes to leave the academic community with a better understanding of the role the onetime prime minister played "as a nation builder and as a contributor to systems of racism and discrimination," said the university in a news release. 

Laurier was Canada's seventh prime minister, between 1896 and 1911. He was Canada's first francophone prime minister and, to date, holds the record for longest serving in the role.

He also introduced a $100 Chinese head tax in 1900. In 1911, Laurier signed an order-in-council banning Black immigrants to Canada for one year. The order did not come into law.

"As an institution of higher learning, we have a responsibility to research and reflect upon our namesake," said university president Deborah MacLatchy in a news release. "We need to better understand who Wilfrid Laurier was, to fully realize the impact of our university's affiliation with his name and legacy."

Laurier policies caused harm: Thomas

The decision to launch the Laurier Legacy Project was made this summer, as the university considered the current political climate and the ongoing discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada, said Darren Thomas, associate vice-president of Indigenous initiatives at Laurier.

"We would certainly be remiss as an institution not to see what potentially could be coming to our doorstep — given our namesake, Sir Wilfrid Laurier," Thomas told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

Many early Canadian politicians viewed the country with a "very colonial lens," said Thomas. 

"That means very racist policies, very discriminatory policies and policies that perpetrated harm, and a lot of this harm continues to be felt and experienced today." 

As part of the Laurier Legacy Project, the university is hiring two post-doctoral fellows and a visiting professor, an Indigenous scholar who will work directly with Thomas's office to decolonize university practices. 

No call for name change

Earlier this summer, more than 300 professors signed a letter demanding a change to the name of Ryerson University in Toronto. Egerton Ryerson is considered one of the primary architects of Canada's residential school system. 

But Thomas said there's no immediate plan to do the same here. 

"There's no current pressure or demand for us to change our name or respond or react to any outside pressure — or internal pressure — as far as that goes.

"We're not committing to no name change, or a name change. This is just going to be part of a discovery process, and a conversation, and why we want to be proactive here," said Thomas. 

But, with Wilfrid Laurier University as the only university in Canada named for a prime minister, he said "we know there's great potential for that." 

The university has changed its name once before. 

In fact, the Laurier Legacy Project is set to conclude with a public education workshop on the 50th anniversary of the renaming of Waterloo Lutheran University to Wilfrid Laurier University, in 2023.


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