On June 6, the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the Kamloops residential school led to massive public outcry across Canada. Since then, more than 5,000 graves have been found at 20 residential schools, bringing Canada’s genocidal history to the forefront of popular consciousness. At Ryerson University, named after one of the architects of the residential school system, this sparked a series of protests which culminated in Egerton Ryerson’s statue being torn down and decapitated. The successful tearing down of the statue gave new fuel to the student-led campaign to rename the school and end the glorification of Egerton Ryerson, with many deciding to refer to it as “X University”. On Aug. 26 the administration announced that they would indeed be changing the name of Ryerson University to something else. What, exactly, is not yet clear.
This is an incredible victory for students and community members, which proves that change is indeed possible. While the name change may seem merely symbolic, it is representative of the fact that the entire narrative that the ruling class built around colonization is being torn down, literally and figuratively. A few years ago, or even just a few weeks before the first unmarked graves were discovered, such a transformation would have been unthinkable. But, in a matter of a few years the general attitude towards Egerton Ryerson went from glorification to criticism; and then in a matter of a few short months from criticism to condemnation. A mass movement brought down his statue, ripped his head off and dumped it in the lake. Ryerson’s head now resides at the 1492 Landback Lane occupation site. The university that bears his name is forced to change it due to the shame and humiliation associated with him. This is how Egerton Ryerson’s true legacy will be remembered, instead of glorifying the colonial narrative that the bourgeoisie used to prop up their rule for the past century and a half.
The demand to change the name of the university did not just arise in the past six months, but in fact had been put forward by students and the Ryerson Student Union since at least 2015. So why did it take so long for the administration to get around to it? They are not acting out of goodwill or benevolence towards Indigenous students, workers, and community members. If that were the case, they would have taken down the statue of Egerton Ryerson themselves. Rather, the protests and action taken by students and the community itself forced the administration’s hand. This proves that through mass movement, we can change things we previously believed to be immutable. In reality, this name change represents the fear of the Ryerson administration, and from there, the fear of the ruling class towards the power of the masses. They hope that they can make symbolic concessions in order to pacify us, so they can maintain a system of oppression and exploitation with a somewhat prettier face. We must not fall for this trick, and we must keep fighting for more than symbolic victories, which may be significant, but do not in and of themselves improve the situation of Indigenous people in Canada.
There is still more to be done. The movement on campus represents a shift in consciousness, and its first victories have shown us the power of protest—that we can fight and win. We can push forward with demands to democratize the university, and build a bigger movement which will finally question who has the power on campus. The reason why changes currently happen so slowly, or not at all, is because the university is not run by the working and oppressed people who actually make the campus function. Rather, it is run by a board of governors beholden to the government and corporations, who themselves are beholden to capitalism. In upholding capitalism, they must uphold and whitewash its legacy of colonialism and oppression of Indigenous peoples. Under capitalism, our education system is fundamentally undemocratic, and used to further exploit and oppress already marginalized students. These are students who are suffering under the weight of centuries of colonial oppression, while forced to pay ever-rising tuition at the same time as they struggle to pay bills to live in our society at all.
The capitalist interests of the administration and board of governors directly contradict the interests of marginalized and working class students, and especially Indigenous students. Why should there even be a board of governors, giving corporations a say in the running of the university? And why are the university administrators paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, while students experience homelessness and poverty? Ryerson’s president Mohamed Lachemi made $427, 471 last year, yet students are forced to work multiple jobs to pay exorbitant tuition fees; and instructors, who are unable to access tenure, must work part-time at numerous universities just to make ends meet. Is university a real way to get an education and find a job, or a scam to turn these administrators into millionaires?
We need to move past symbolic victories and towards measures that will improve the lives of Indigenous students and community members. Full access to education, including in Indigenous languages, and to good jobs; full access to all necessary services for students; Indigenous content in the curriculum; control of how the campus is run; public acknowledgement of and education on the role that Ryerson played in the oppression of Indigenous people—none of these will be easily conceded to by a capitalist board of governors. To achieve them, we must fight to abolish the institution’s board of governors, which is an obstacle to our aims, and fight to democratize our campus by putting it in the hands of students and workers. A democratically-run university, where all students, staff, and community members have a say, will ensure that the needs of Indigenous students are met, as well as the needs of all students who are currently exploited by the education system. We must fight for free education—not only an end to tuition fees, but for living grants that will enable students to pay for books, housing, and food. This will eliminate all economic barriers to education, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. By fighting together for a socialist program at the universities, we can fundamentally improve the lives of all the working-class and oppressed.
While renaming the university is an important and necessary step in challenging capitalist propaganda around colonialism in Canada, without transforming the institutions which keep colonialism in place we will only ever end up with symbolic change, rather than real systemic change. What this movement has shown us is that, as Leon Trotsky once said, “‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle.” The struggle against Indigenous oppression is a fundamental part of the struggle against capitalism and all forms of oppression, on and off the campus. If we are united in struggle as students and workers, we can end the oppression of Indigenous students, along with ending the oppression of all students. We can win free education, abolish student debt, abolish the corporate-controlled Board of Governors, and even make our campus democratic through democratically elected councils of both students and workers. Only we can change society, and through revolutionary class struggle of the oppressed and exploited, we can win!