Ryerson University will change its name following a recommendation from a special task force that examined the legacy of its namesake, Egerton Ryerson. The task force concluded the university should be renamed to better reflect the values and diversity of the institution.
The Standing Strong Task Force (known as Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win in Cree) was set up in 2020 amid a wave of reckoning with colonization and the commemoration of controversial historical figures across the country. The task force delivered its report Thursday to the university’s board of governors, which approved its 22 recommendations.
Ryerson will be the first university in Canada to change its name as a result of these debates. A new name could be chosen in time for the start of the next academic year in September, 2022, university president Mohamed Lachemi said.
Egerton Ryerson was a leading figure in 19th-century Ontario education who has been linked with the design of the residential school system, which forcibly placed Indigenous children in schools designed to eradicate their language and culture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the schools an act of cultural genocide.
Over the past year, students, faculty and staff have grown more vocal about their desire to see the university renamed. In May, a group of Indigenous students asked faculty and students to stop using the Ryerson designation in their CVs and e-mail signatures. Many began referring to the school as “X University.” Then in June, a statue of Mr. Ryerson at the centre of campus was pulled down after a gathering to honour the Indigenous children who died at residential schools.
The Standing Strong Task Force conducted several months of community consultations and surveyed more than 11,000 staff, students and alumni as part of its work. In the end, the task force concluded it could not ignore what it described as the harm caused by continuing to commemorate Mr. Ryerson.
“For as long as the university is named after Egerton Ryerson, our narrative will be centred on his legacy. Given that our namesake is increasingly recognized as a symbol of colonialism, our identity as an institution can no longer be disentangled from separate schools, segregation, the genocide of Indigenous Peoples and cultural erasure,” the task force wrote.
Dr. Lachemi said the university will embrace the opportunity the task force has presented.
“While this process has been difficult for some, our hope is that most will recognize it for what it is, and it’s the right decision,” he said. “It’s an important step forward in our commitment toward reconciliation.”
“The legacy of Egerton Ryerson has increasingly been a source of pain and frustration for many members of our community. And I think we need to confront that legacy openly and honestly,” he added.
The university will now begin a process to select a new name.
Sam Howden, a student and organizer of the X University campaign, described the renaming as a step in the right direction, but added a lot of work remains to be done.
“It’s fantastic news that they’re going to change the name,” they said. “But what will the historical narrative be behind this space, because it was colonized from the ground up? ... There’s a lot of history that needs to be dug up.”
Hayden King, executive director of the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research institute based at Ryerson, said he was proud of the students who took up this cause over decades.
“This has taken a generation of organizing and solidarity,” Prof. King said. “The next cohort of students won’t have to bear the Ryerson name and that’s an accomplishment.”
The task force report included a summary of the life and work of Mr. Ryerson. The extent of the role he played in the design and structure of the residential-school system remains a source of debate.
Mr. Ryerson’s 1847 report on industrial schools contributed to the creation of two residential schools with religious instruction for Indigenous children in Ontario, schools that were designed to produce “industrious” farmers, which didn’t reflect the aspirations of local Indigenous communities. Those schools closed within about a decade, but Mr. Ryerson’s writing remained influential. His work has been linked with an 1879 report by Nicholas Flood Davin that laid the foundation for the residential school system.
Joanne Dallaire, a Cree elder, co-chair of the task force and senior adviser, Indigenous relations and reconciliation, at Ryerson, said the discovery of large numbers of unmarked graves in Kamloops and at other residential-school sites during the consultation process contributed to an outpouring of emotion from the community. The name “Ryerson” became closely linked with a terrible period of history.
“For Indigenous communities and for other people, they found it to be very traumatic. It was hard for people to separate Ryerson and the legacy of residential schools,” Elder Dallaire said.
Catherine Ellis, a professor of history and co-chair of the task force, said that, rather than a historical assessment of Mr. Ryerson, their recommendations are driven primarily by an understanding of legacy and whether that legacy aligns with the institution’s values.
“The recommendation for name change is really not about judging Egerton Ryerson. At no point was he on trial. It’s really about us. It’s about the values of this institution, and it’s about the aspirations of the community,” Prof. Ellis said.
The name Ryerson was originally chosen in 1948 for the new technical institute because its founding principal, Howard Kerr, thought it would confer credibility and a sense of tradition. The school opened in the same location where Mr. Ryerson had opened the Toronto Normal School for the education of teachers in 1847. It eventually became a polytechnic, then a polytechnic university before becoming Ryerson University in 2002. The school currently has approximately 40,000 full-time students and more than 200,000 alumni.
The task force issued a number of other recommendations on commemoration and the principles by which it should be shaped.
The statue of Mr. Ryerson should not be replaced, the task force said, and the athletic team mascot “Eggy,” a cartoonish ram, should be reconsidered. There should be physical, interactive displays throughout the university on Mr. Ryerson’s legacy. The task force also called for mandatory educational opportunities in all academic programs on Indigenous history and Indigenous-colonial relations in Canada, and for faculty and staff to be required to complete a module on residential schools and Indigenous history.
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