So far nearly 10,000 Ryerson students and community members have signed a petition demanding the removal of the Egerton Ryerson statue from the Ryerson campus. In addition, an open letter written by Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) demanding the statue be removed has garnered 800 signatures by students, an endorsement from 20 organizations, 121 full-time faculty members, and many more. This demand has immense popularity on campus from Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students alike. However, there has been pushback from the administration, led by Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi and the Ryerson Student Union (RSU), who refuse to remove the statue or support the demand for the removal. Similarly, misinformation by the Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole has been spread, who, in a recorded zoom discussion with the Ryerson Campus Conservatives, claimed that residential schools were created to provide education but “became horrible.” So who was Ryerson and why is there a movement to bring down his statue?
Egerton Ryerson, who Ryerson University was named after, was an Ontario educator, superintendent, and minister who took part in the construction of the Canadian residential school system from the 1840s to the 1870s. The residential Schools are widely known to have been a deeply oppressive, racist, violent colonial institution, which destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children and their families by ripping them away from their communities and cultures, and forcibly assimilating them into Canadian colonial culture. Within this system, which lasted from the 1870s up to the 1990s, Indigenous children faced widespread mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Many children died of diseases like tuberculosis, and the widespread trauma due to this institution has deeply affected Indigenous communities today due to intergenerational trauma. To this day it is unknown exactly how many children died within the care of the residential schools as it was not kept track of, and many children who died were buried in unmarked graves that were hidden or built over. In 2018 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reported that the residential school system was part of the cultural genocide of Indigenous communities across Canada.
Some have argued in defense of Egerton Ryerson, arguing that there is no proof of his direct involvement in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people, however, his role in the building of residential schools is well documented. In 1847 the Department of Indian Affairs reached out to Ryerson for help in developing a report on the policy of residential schools. In this report he is quoted as saying, “Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.” Ryerson also put forward that “Indian children, wherever possible, should be trained in boarding schools, apart from their parents and away from whites.” What these quotes show is that Ryerson advocated for the racial segregation of white and Indigenous children, the separation of Indigenous children from their families and homes, and the eradication of Indigenous cultures through forced assimilation, all of which have resulted in what is known as a cultural genocide against Indigenous people. Ryerson’s ideas on how Indigenous students should be educated were then adopted into the residential school system with devastating consequences, which shows that he was not only complicit, but actually, instrumental in the formation of residential schools. Residential schools are inseparable from the genocide of Indigenous people. Clearly, the statue on Ryerson campus commemorating Ryerson must be removed, as his legacy is one of colonialism and systemic racism against Indigenous communities, and not something the Ryerson community wants to celebrate or honour. This is not a question of rewriting history, or trying to ignore the past, as some have claimed. In reality, we must reveal the true history of colonial violence, instead of celebrating figures who contributed to genocide. So why then, do the Ryerson administration and the RSU oppose the removal of a statue of a man with such a racist and colonial history?
On Nov. 27, 2020 at the Ryerson Student Union Board of Directors meeting, amidst high tensions and accusations of corruption and mismanagement, RSU president Ali Yousaf refused to sign the open letter written by CESAR demanding the removal of the statue. Instead the board voted that the RSU would draft its own letter within the week, using the excuse that they are a different student union. So far, as of Dec. 12, a full 15 days later, no such letter exists. It is clear that the RSU leadership is unwilling to denounce the statue and put pressure on the administration to remove the statue. What this shows us is that the RSU leadership, far from acting as the representatives of the students of Ryerson, are instead shielding the administration from the interests of the students. So what has been the administration’s response to all this? The topic of the removal of the Ryerson statue has been one of immense debate for years, however the issue resurfaced this summer when three Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) activists were arrested for defacing the statue by pouring pink paint on it and putting up a sign saying, “Tear down monuments that represent slavery, colonialism and violence,” as well as advocating for the defunding of the police. It should be noted that every year engineering students vandalize the statue as a prank, with no repercussions. However when BLM activists do the same thing they get arrested. This is clear systemic racism on behalf of the Ryerson administration and must be denounced by the Ryerson community as a whole.
Following the arrests, Ryerson President Mohamed Lachemi announced that there would be a 14 person “task force” assigned with the task of investigating the legacy of Egerton Ryerson in relation to residential schools. The purpose is to come up with a “final report with recommended actions next summer,” as reported in the campus newspaper the Ryersonian. It should be made clear that this so-called “task force” is a delaying strategy the administration is using to cover up for the fact that they do not want the statue to be removed. As already stated, Ryerson’s involvement in the construction of residential schools is well documented and inarguable. If the TRC determined in 2018 that the residential schools were a part of the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples then what more could this task force discover? We must tear down statues of the architects of colonial violence, as their legacy is not one of honour but rather of racism, violence, and genocide. We must take this cue from the precedent set across the world, from the United States to Britain to Latin America, where mass movements of youth, struggling against the living consequences of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism are ripping down monuments to colonial architects like Ryerson. If the administration will not bring down Ryerson, then we, the student body, must do it ourselves.
However we should not stop at simply bringing down the statue, as the real reason the administration refuses to remove the Ryerson statue is because they know that the next step would be renaming the university, which of course, the administration does not want to do. However, Egerton Ryerson must be brought down, both as a statue and the name of the university, because he deserves none of the honour or prestige that these symbols give him. There are a number of names Ryerson University could be changed to, and individuals who the statue could replace. The Ryersonian suggests Indigenous leaders like Tom Longboat, an Onondaga man who survived the residential school system to become one of Canada’s most celebrated Olympic runners, or Francis Pegahmagabow, a celebrated First Nations World War II hero, or Daphne Odjig, a First Nations artist who founded the Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation, which promoted and supported Indigenous art, or even Peter Bryce, an Ontario Health Department Official who exposed the truth about the abhorrent conditions of the residential schools in 1922, despite being suppressed by the Canadian government. Another contender could be William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837–1838, whose house remains just down the street from Ryerson University on Bond Street.
The demand to rename Ryerson is not new, in fact it goes back to 2015. However, in 2017 the RSU (under a different leadership) demanded that the administration change the name during their Colonialism 150 campaign. This was put forward among many other demands that included the demand to remove the statue from campus, the introduction of Indigenous works into every program’s syllabus, and an Indigenous language course, among several other demands. The only two demands, which were not met in 2017, were the bringing down of the statue and the renaming of the university, for the obvious reason that the administration is a colonial, capitalist institution that knows that these symbols represent power. Some may say that changing symbols changes nothing, however if changing symbols really changed nothing, then why do the right wing fight so hard to keep them there? The truth is that symbols like statues and names represent the ideological superstructure to the capitalist rule that keeps us all oppressed and exploited, and if we begin to change the symbols of oppression, like who has honour and who does not, then it shows that we can fundamentally transform the real structures of oppression in our society. We must not fight just for symbols, which do matter because they show the shift in power relations in society, but also fight for the material needs of Indigenous people and working people. If we, the students and broader community, have the power to change these symbols of colonial violence, then we have the power to achieve other real changes, like free education, abolition of student debt, and other barriers that perpetuate systemic oppression against Indigenous and working class people today. The struggle to bring down statues is connected to the broader struggle. The struggle for socialism necessarily includes the struggle of the Indigenous communities, and for this reason we must bring down the symbols of injustice in our struggle to bring down the system of injustice, which is capitalism.