Indigenous faculty at Ryerson have written an open letter to university administrators calling on the school to change its name and remove a statue of its namesake, Egerton Ryerson, one of the architects of the residential schools system.
The letter, signed by 18 professors and researchers, calls for “removing the face and name of a symbol of oppression, violence, and pain.”
It also lends support to a movement launched by Indigenous students at Ryerson last month to refer to Ryerson publicly as X University, to avoid repeating a name that the students described as a symbol of cultural genocide.
The debate around the Ryerson name and the statue that sits at the heart of the university’s downtown Toronto campus has percolated for years. Mr. Ryerson, a leading figure in education in 19th-century Ontario, contributed to the design of the Indian residential school system that separated First Nations children from their families and aimed to erase their culture and traditions.
The statue has been vandalized several times in recent years. It has also become a focus of protest after a B.C. First Nation’s announcement last week of an unmarked burial ground containing the remains of more than 200 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
“The debate about removing the statue at X University and changing the name has carried on for decades, as have the attempts by the university to pacify it,” the letter states. “We ask [the university community and administration] to recognize that the time to remove the statue and rename our school is now.”
Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi launched a task force last year to gather input on how the university can reconcile the legacy of the man for which it is named. The task force, which came to be called Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win), is co-chaired by Joanne Dallaire, a Cree pipe carrier who serves as an elder and senior adviser on Indigenous relations and reconciliation at Ryerson.
The task force recently completed a period of consultation with the Ryerson community on a range of questions related to Mr. Ryerson’s role in the residential school system and his legacy. It was also asked to look at how other universities have dealt with monuments that have become controversial and to develop guiding principles and recommendations on how the university could deal with the statue and “other elements of Egerton Ryerson’s history.”
On an FAQ page, the university did not directly say whether it would consider a name change as a result of this process – only that “community members are encouraged to share all thoughts and ideas regarding what steps the university can take toward reconciliation.”
Ryerson said that to date more than 6,000 people had shared their views with the task force. The university said it looks forward to receiving its recommendations in the next 90 days. The task force has been asked to deliver a report to the university president and board of governors by September.
A group of Indigenous students, in an open letter published last month, say the only solution is to change the name of the university.
The letter from faculty, meanwhile, says the task force focus on reconciling Mr. Ryerson’s legacy “seems even more hollow now,” in light of the announcement of the remains of children at Kamloops.
“It is at least at this point impossible to ignore the material trauma Indigenous peoples face in their pursuit of higher education at this university,” the faculty letter states.
The letter argues that enrolment among Indigenous students has been flat, and that those who have attended have described being upset by seeing the statue of Mr. Ryerson at the heart of campus. It also says some graduates dislike bearing a degree issued with his name upon it. Unless the university changes course, it says, it risks losing its Indigenous students and faculty.
The letter is signed by Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, Lynn Lavallée, strategic lead of Indigenous resurgence and a professor of social work, Karyn Pugliese, a professor of journalism, as well as 15 others.
Meanwhile, the university’s journalism school says it will rename two of its publications, the Ryerson Review of Journalism magazine and The Ryersonian newspaper, to remove the references to Mr. Ryerson. A committee has been formed to engage students in coming up with new mastheads, which are expected by fall.
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