As It Happens

Why some Ryerson students want the Toronto university to change its name

Anishinaabe student Sarah Dennis says it 'leaves a bitter feeling' to walk past the campus statue of a man whose ideas influenced the creation of residential schools.
Social work student Sarah Dennis says it's time to change the name of Ryerson University. (Sarah Dennis)

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Anishinaabe student Sarah Dennis says it "leaves a bitter feeling" to walk past the campus statue of Egerton Ryerson, a man whose ideas helped to influenced the creation of Canada's residential schools system.

"As an Indigenous person it really represents the negative history that we have with education," Dennis, whose grandfather is a residential school survivor, told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

"I am here trying to, you know, get an education for myself that I can better the future for my children and just to do well in life, and it's difficult when you're reminded of the things that have caused a great deal of pain."

Dennis is a member of Ryerson University's Indigenous Students' Association, which — along with some members of the Ryerson Students' Union (RSU) — is calling on the school to remove the statue and change its name

Ryerson, a Methodist minister and educator best known for advocating free public education Canada, did not establish any residential schools in Canada.

However, according to the university's own website, his ideas helped to influence their creation.

"While Egerton Ryerson supported free and compulsory education, he also believed in different systems of education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. These beliefs influenced, in part, the establishment of what became the Indian Residential School system that has had such a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people across Canada," the school's website reads.

"While Egerton Ryerson did not implement or oversee Indian Residential Schools, his ideas were used by others to create their blueprint."

Some students are calling for Ryerson University in Toronto to change its name. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The demands — which also include, among other things, the establishment of an Indigenous space on campus and the creation of Indigenous language classes — came in the form of a Facebook post from the RSU's official page on Canada Day.

The post has sparked a flurry of debate in the comments, with many students speaking out against the proposal.

"It's the history of the school. You do not have to agree with it, but it is the history of what people back then were thinking. It is a reminder... No ones hands are clean when it comes to the history of Canada," wrote one person who identified herself as Indigenous. 

The students' union has since distanced itself from the demands, saying they were posted without the approval the union's executive.

The RSU plans to meet on July 19 to discuss how to proceed. The university said it will not comment until the RSU clarifies its position.

"We await the outcome of this meeting and we look forward to hearing the RSU's concerns through official channels so that we can work together productively," the Toronto university wrote in an email to As It Happens.

"Ryerson University values the equitable, intentional and ongoing engagement of equity, diversity and inclusion within every facet of university life. As always, we invite any students or student groups with concerns to contact university administration directly."

The push to change Ryerson's name comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped the the name of founding father Hector-Louis Langevin from a Parliament building in Ottawa. He proposed the creation of the residential school system as the quickest way to assimilate First Nations children into Euro-Canadian society.

Canada'sTruth and Reconciliation commission, which conducted an exhaustive six-year study of the system, found physical, mental and sexual abuse was rampant, and some 6,000 children died while in care because of malnourishment or disease.

Dennis said her family lost their language to residential schools — and she still lives with that shame.

"I feel very inadequate as an Indigenous person not being able to understand what people are saying when they speak my language and it's a difficult task as an adult to learn a language where resources aren't necessarily available to take on that challenge."

Asked whether Canada should scrub the names of all historical figures associated with the system from its structures, Dennis said that's not a bad idea.

"My people have been occupying this land for the better part of 13,000 years and none of the names of our institutions, or a whole lot of things that are reflected in our popular culture and structures that we function on, really reflect that," Dennis said.

"And I really think that's it's  problem that should be addressed and that people should really not resist change when it comes to that because it's not hurting anybody and it's actually helping people feel like they belong."