Renaming Ryerson University is not about sanitizing our history
It's about removing the name of a man who was integral to one of the most shameful aspects of our past
Canadians would be appalled if a place of learning was named in honour of King Leopold II, the genocidal Belgium monarch who oversaw the slaughter of millions in African people in the Congo. Or if, say, a medical school in Canada was named for Dr. Josef Mengele, the evil Nazi doctor who conducted horrific medical experiments on Jewish twins at Auschwitz.
Think these hypotheticals are too extreme? Well, there is a school in Toronto named for the man whose ideas helped create atrocious residential schools where Indigenous children were beaten, raped and abused. Tell those children that Egerton Ryerson should have a university named after him.
There is a certain irony to the fact that many people are insisting the university stay true to its legacy and keep "Ryerson" in its name, when the whole point of the residential school system was to eradicate Indigenous languages, suppress culture, forcibly integrate children into a primarily Anglo society and break the bonds among our families and communities. As someone who witnessed this firsthand as a student at the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., I can attest to its effectiveness.
Acknowledging our past
In a recent CBC column, Angela Wright argued that Ryerson University should not change its name, suggesting that doing so would eliminate an opportunity to talk about the "ugly" aspects of Canada's history.
"If given a new name," she wrote, "Ryerson University would no longer have to make a statement about or acknowledge Egerton Ryerson's legacy and influence. The conversation would disappear." Wright also suggested that changing Ryerson's name would "scrub" the institution of its history.
In fact, changing Ryerson's name would do little more than rescind the name of a man who was an integral part of one of the most shameful aspects of Canadian history. It will in no way eliminate the conversation about or study of residential schools. Rather, it will simply forge a new identity for the institution based on respect and acknowledgement of the suffering of Indigenous peoples.
- Renaming Ryerson University is a poor way to deal with Canada's ugly past
- Why some Ryerson students want the Toronto university to change its name
Other places — indeed, entire cities — have changed their names with minimal fuss. "Bombay" was changed to "Mumbai," for example, to erase some of the legacy of British colonial rule. In Canada, "Frobisher Bay" was changed to its original Inuktitut name "Iqaluit." And Germany long ago scrubbed Nazi symbols and names from its buildings and institutions, but that hasn't prevented it from making the history of the Holocaust and the Third Reich a vital part of every school's curriculum. We can do the same here.
"Canada" itself is a Mohawk word referring to a town or community, and it reflects a fundamental part of our nation's identity: that we are a collection of communities with respect for our various histories, languages and cultures. We are willing to adapt to the new, and to reconcile with our past, however controversial or uncomfortable.
I'd suggest Ryerson be renamed using an Indigenous word, since we already use Indigenous words for places like Ontario, Toronto, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Renaming should reflect the need to speak honestly about our common experiences and our past. The name "Ryerson" should not be part of our future.