As It Happens·Q&A

Ryerson name change a long time coming, says Anishinaabe student

Social work student Sarah Dennis-Kooji of the Nippissing First Nation was among the students calling for a name change in 2017. She's still a student at Ryerson today.

Sarah Dennis-Kooji was part of a group of Indigenous students calling for a name change in 2017

The head from a Ryerson University statue of Egerton Ryerson, considered one of the architects of Canada's residential school system, pictured at the 1492 Land Back Lane reclamation camp set up by Six Nations of the Grand River in Caledonia, Ont., on June 9. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

A lot has changed since a coalition of Indigenous students at Toronto's Ryerson University first called on the school to drop its name four years ago.

Back then, the university decided to stick by its controversial namesake, Egerton Ryerson, a minister and educator whose ideas influenced the creation of Canada's residential school system.

Thousands of children died in the federally funded, church-run boarding schools, which were designed to assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit children by stripping them of their languages and cultures.

Over the last five months, First Nations across Canada have been using ground penetrating radar technology to locate those children's remains, often in unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

Those findings have renewed the fight to change the school's name. When protesters toppled and decapitated a statue of Ryerson on campus in June, the school announced it would not replace it. 

On Thursday, Ryerson announced it would change its name, accepting the recommendation from a task force it dispatched to examine the issue.

Social work student Sarah Dennis-Kooji of the Nippissing First Nation was among the students calling for a name change in 2017. She's still a student at Ryerson today. 

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

Sarah, what went through your mind when you learned that Ryerson University was going to finally change its name?

I was actually really excited, almost equally as excited as when the statue came down.

Remind us what happened when you and a group of Indigenous students called on the school to change its name.

There were quite a few calls to action that the Indigenous Students Rising and the Black Liberation Collective at Ryerson had written in an open letter and sent off to the president's office. And, yeah, it was very intense, but very fulfilling work.

Sarah Dennis-Kooji, pictured here in 2017, has long been calling on Ryerson University to change its name. (CBC)

It's interesting, though, to look back at that time because there was this sort of galvanization around the idea. But, you know, the statue didn't come down. The school didn't change its name after that work. What do you think has changed?

I think a lot has changed. We've gone through a pandemic and people basically have had to put their lives on hold in a lot of ways. People are beginning to focus on things that actually matter, like social justice. And, you know, it's taken a lot of people in dire straits and a lot of very strong willed people coming together to make necessary change … both from the top-down and the bottom-up.

[The school] seems quite willing to change the name now. What was the argument back then in 2017 that seemed so impossible at the time?

It was similar to the reason why they didn't want to take down the statue. Their argument was the whole issue related to marketing and people's degrees, and Ryerson should be a name to be proud of because he, you know, started the public education system.

It was just a lot of very sort of wishy-washy reasons to uphold basically the name of a colonizer who is implicated in acts of genocide through education and lack of health care to a lot of children who died.

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

1 year 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.

W]hat will it mean for you walking [around] the university … knowing that there's a new name attached to this now?

Despite, you know, the bitterness of it being somewhat tokenistic, I'm going to be proud to have graduated from a university that was once, quote unquote, popular for a colonizer's name, and also popular for actually living up to its mandate of valuing social innovation and equity.

This day and age we're so powerfully driven by social media trends and influencers, like siding with white supremacy is not hot, right?

I'll be happy to receive my degree as opposed to wanting to hand it back, saying: Change the name on it.

What does it mean for the next generation? A young kid who's going to step on a campus that won't have to go through what you went through, thinking about this and having it weigh on you?

It's just like a part of the plethora of things that Indigenous, racialized and any person that identifies as a member of a marginalized group is going to experience in a colonial institution. So it's certainly one less thing to have weighing on your mind — you know, a name that is an act of violence, a statue that is an act of violence.

I don't know if you've had a chance to think about this, but do you have any ideas for what the new name of Ryerson University should be?

It would be cool if it was named after, like a prominent Indigenous figure or even a name that is in a local Indigenous language, like Anishinaabemowin, Wendat or any of the Onkwehonwe languages.

That definitely is not something that I, as one Indigenous person, feel comfortable suggesting because I feel like it should certainly be a collaborative event that is held by community. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now