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Indigenous faculty, students call on Ryerson U to change name, remove campus statue

Indigenous professors and students at Ryerson University are asking the school to change its name and remove a statue of Egerton Ryerson from its campus because of his role in the creation of Canada's residential school system.

Statue of Egerton Ryerson should be removed immediately, profs, students say

Sam Howden, a Ryerson University student, says: 'It's not just the statue itself. It's the symbolism of the person who embodies that statue and the name of that person and their history, which has been essentially the systemic violence of putting Black and Indigenous folks in segregated schooling and leading to a whole bunch of cultural genocide.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Indigenous professors and students at Ryerson University are asking the school to change its name and remove a statue of Egerton Ryerson from its campus because of his role in the creation of Canada's residential school system.

A letter on Wednesday, co-signed by 17 professors, called on the Toronto university to address concerns the Indigenous community and students have expressed for decades about the legacy of Egerton Ryerson.

The professors wrote that the recent discovery in Kamloops, B.C., of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a former residential school has pushed the issue of the university's name back into the forefront.

"We, Indigenous faculty at Ryerson, sign our names to this letter, with the hope we are finally heard, both by the university community, who we ask to join this campaign, and by the university administration, who we ask to recognize that the time to remove the statue and rename our school is now," they wrote.

The group said that enrolment among Indigenous students at the school has been flat for some time, and that will continue if the administration does not properly address the issue.

"With recent events, it is very likely that enrolment of Indigenous students will actually drop in the coming years," the group notes. "Without Indigenous students, the faculty we've recruited will also move on. This is the future for a 'Ryerson' University."

Last month, Indigenous students at the school called on fellow students, faculty and alumni to stop using the name "Ryerson" in their email signatures, correspondence and on their resumes to send a message, instead calling the school "X University."

In November 2020, the university appointed the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force to complete  "detailed and expert" historical research on the life of Egerton Ryerson and his legacy.

The statue of Egerton Ryerson was splattered with red paint on Monday. The university's school of journalism has said Egerton Ryerson was 'indisputably' one of the architects of the residential school system. (CBC)

The group was also tasked with conducting consultations with the school community on what steps the school should take to address Egerton Ryerson's legacy and "what principles should guide commemoration-related decision-making at the university."

Their final report will be delivered to the school's president and board of governors this fall and it is expected to include recommended actions regarding the Egerton Ryerson statue on campus.

"It would be premature for the university to comment at this time on matters that may be included in their final report and recommendations," the school said in a statement.

Prof, student say university needs to take action

Hayden King, the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, the school's Indigenous-led research centre, said the discovery in Kamloops has once again shone a spotlight on the long-standing issues at Ryerson.

"While we're dealing with our family and our friends and our relatives that are experiencing this trauma of residential schools and all the shock that accompanies this recent discovery, there's also this sort of additional burden that I think the Indigenous community at Ryerson is carrying right now," he said.

WATCH | Calls for Ryerson University to change name, remove founder statue:

Calls for Ryerson University to change name, remove founder statue

12 months ago
Duration 2:18
Pressure is mounting for Ryerson University to remove the statue of founder Egerton Ryerson — and for the school to change its name. Egerton Ryerson is considered a key designer of Canada's residential school system. Farrah Merali has more on those calls and what the university says it's doing.

King, who was one of the professors who signed the letter, said the school administration has made a number of attempts over several decades to address Egerton Ryerson's legacy and they have all fallen short, including this latest review.

"I think that the Indigenous community has been pretty unequivocal in the demand that the statue be removed and the university be renamed," he said. "But I think it seems to a lot of us, anyway, that this is another attempt just to sort of circumvent that conversation. And I think it'll be really difficult for the university administration to continue doing that in this particular moment."

'We're no longer putting up with this type of violence'

Sam Howden, one of the student organizers of the group University X, said the university administration needs to take action. Howden is Metis from Treaty 1 territory, has been living in Toronto for more than seven years and has been studying at the school for the last four years.

"It's not just the statue itself. It's the symbolism of the person who embodies that statue and the name of that person and their history, which has been essentially the systemic violence of putting Black and Indigenous folks in segregated schooling and leading to a whole bunch of cultural genocide." they said.

"Folks are coming together at a community level and abroad to try to create stronger networks to show people that we're no longer putting up with this type of violence."

Howden helped to create a memorial at the base of the statue of Ryerson. They said it contains 245 pairs of shoes, berries, tobacco, sweet grass, flowers and toys. They said there is collective grief over the discovery of the remains of the 215 children. On Monday, there was a sit-in at the statue. On Tuesday, Indigenous dancers performed there.

"Our intention is to keep this going as long we can in terms of gathering footwear ... as a physical representation and manifestation on this campus of what were the implications of the systemic violence and the loss that happened," they said.

This statue of Egerton Ryerson was vandalized after the remains of 215 children were found by radar at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. (Paul Smith/CBC)

Lynn Lavallee, an Anishinaabe Metis registered with the Metis Nation of Ontario and a Ryerson professor and strategic lead in Indigenous resurgence at the faculty of community services, said the time for consultation about the statue and name is over.

"We want the statue removed now. I would like to see Ryerson respond this week or next week and remove the statue. The coming down of that statue will mean so much," Lavallee said.

"People in Canada are enraged right now. This is genocide. We already knew it was genocide but it wasn't believed."

Journalism school to rename 2 publications

Earlier this week, Ryerson's school of journalism said it would rename two of its publications ahead of the new school year, dropping any reference to the man the school is named after.

The department said in a statement it would change the name of the Ryerson Review of Journalism magazine and the Ryersonian newspaper.

The statement came a day after a statue of Egerton Ryerson was vandalized with red paint and graffiti.

The school has said Ryerson was "indisputably" one of the architects of the residential school system.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Sam Howden as using she/her pronouns. In fact, Howden identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.
    Jun 05, 2021 1:58 PM ET

With files from Farrah Merali

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