Ryerson University to change its name amid reckoning with history of residential schools

Ryerson University's board of directors has voted to change the Toronto school's name over concerns about Egerton Ryerson's links to residential schools.

Push to rename the school began with Indigenous students, staff

A statue of Egerton Ryerson, one of the architects of the residential school system, lies on the grounds of the university that bears his name after being toppled in June. The school announced Thursday that it is changing its name. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Ryerson University's board of directors has voted to change the Toronto school's name over concerns about the man the institution is named for and his links to Canada's residential schools.

In a post on the school's website Thursday, president and vice-chancellor Mohamed Lachemi announced the change is forthcoming as part of 22 recommendations made by the university's Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force.

Egerton Ryerson is considered one of the primary architects of the residential school system and, in recent years, staff and students had been calling for both the removal of his statue and for the university to change its name.

The statue of Ryerson that once stood on the school's campus was toppled earlier this year, amid the discovery of unmarked grave sites on the grounds of former residential schools. 

In response to the growing controversy, the university formed the task force to reconsider the school's name, Egerton Ryerson's legacy and other commemorative elements on campus.

The group's 22 recommendations included renaming the institution, sharing materials to recognize the legacy of Egerton Ryerson and providing more opportunities to learn about Indigenous history and Indigenous-colonial relations.

Ryerson University president and vice-chancellor Mohamed Lachemi wrote that accepting the task force's recommendations, including the name change, will let the school 'move forward and write the next chapter' of its history. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

'We got what we wanted'

Student activist Sam Howden, who is Red River Métis and uses they/them pronouns, was one of a group of students who began referring to the university as "X University", after publicly calling for the school to change its name for years.

"We got what we wanted," they said, calling the name change "pretty incredible."

"But I really want to emphasize that this happened because of student action, because we were on the ground, because it was a direct action and because we were bringing awareness and education to community members and making sure that we centred experiences on Indigenous people."

Howden said their father taught them about Egerton Ryerson's association with the residential school system before they enrolled at the school four years ago.

"I have never owned any paraphernalia from the university for a reason," they said. 

However, Howden was concerned about the school's refusal to vilify Egerton Ryerson in its announcement.

"The report provides a full picture of the past and present commemoration of Egerton Ryerson, yet the recommendations are not based on either vilification or vindication of the individual," Lachemi wrote, adding that the task force has shown how the school "can move forward and write the next chapter in our history."

Howden said it was important to acknowledge the "wrongdoing of Ryerson."

"Beyond the name we really do need to see some action to better support Indigenous students, staff and faculty members and we really do need to continue to put the pressure on the institution itself to not try and distance itself from its history and take accountability for it."

The right call for 2021, says task force co-chair

Dr. Catherine Ellis, co-chair of the Standing Strong task force, said the group's work on the report had had three streams: researching the life and legacy of Egerton Ryerson, engaging with the community and gathering feedback, and reckoning with the task force's "own learnings and unlearnings."

"All of those things then came together as we began to develop the recommendations themselves and the substance of the report."

Ellis said she was "delighted" all 22 of the recommendations had been adopted by the university as it "reflected the aspirations of the community."

"These are absolutely the right recommendations for the university now in 2021," Ellis said.

"That said, the university got a lot of different opportunities from the name Ryerson, starting in 1948 when the name was first chosen — to give instant credibility to a very new kind of institution and a new kind of higher education at that time."

However, she said "those opportunities are now being impeded by the name", resulting in a loss of students and staff members. 

She said she was "very confident" the university was working to implement the recommendations immediately.

"It's really incumbent now on the university administration to do what we know they've already begun to do, which is to move forward as quickly, but also as consultatively, as possible for the next stages."

WATCH | Singh says Ryerson University voting to change its name is 'powerful' ​​​​​​:

Singh says Ryerson University voting to change its name is "powerful'

2 years ago
Duration 0:41
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh reacts to news that Ryerson University's board of directors has voted to change the Toronto university's name over the link between residential schools and the man the institution is named after.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called the name change a "powerful announcement" and said it was "welcomed."

"I think public institutions and public spaces should be named in a way that brings people together and makes people feel welcomed and to acknowledge that there are some names that should be in history books but maybe not in public spaces, I think is a powerful announcement and appropriate," he told reporters. 

Suze Morrison — NDP MPP for Toronto Centre, which includes the university campus — acknowledged the work of Indigenous activists, students and community members who advocated for the name change, saying it is "long overdue."

"Our public institutions must take steps to change colonial practices that continue to cause harm to Indigenous communities," she said in a statement. 

Morrison called for the name change to take place "as soon as possible."

With files from The Canadian Press