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Education Ryerson Students’ Union issues demands for Indigenous justice

Students pass the library at Ryerson University in Toronto.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

On a day when many people were celebrating Canada's 150th birthday, the Ryerson Students' Union used July 1 to make public a list of demands to university leaders that include changing the school's name and tearing down a campus statue of Egerton Ryerson, whose ideas influenced the creation of the Indian Residential School system.

The administration of the Toronto university was expected to issue a response on Tuesday. University spokesperson Johanna VanderMaas said no member of Ryerson's executive was available on the holiday weekend for comment.

The students' union made a total of 11 demands as part of its anti-Canada 150 protest which it refers to as "#Resist150" and "Colonialism 150."

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"I think it is just necessary for Ryerson to acknowledge the history from within its name and the history with having a statue up like that that represents an individual who had an active role in creating residential schools," said Susanne Nyaga, who is the union's incoming president.

The university's website lists Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) as a "prominent figure … in politics, religion, arts, sciences and perhaps most significantly, education" who was instrumental in creating Ontario's public school system.

It goes on, however, to say that "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 website says that "while Egerton Ryerson did not implement or oversee Indian Residential Schools, his ideas were used by others to create their blueprint. It is important to acknowledge this connection and in so doing emphasize the university's ongoing and proactive commitment to respectful relationships with Aboriginal communities, both within and outside Ryerson University."

For Ms. Nyaga, who said she speaks on behalf of the students' union and not members of the Indigenous community directly, the statue of Egerton Ryerson, the school's name and the wording on the website acknowledging his residential-school connection are no longer good enough in 2017.

"Students who don't look into Indigenous issues probably don't even know about the role that Egerton Ryerson had, so these demands definitely demonstrate that Indigenous students do not think that this is enough and more needs to be done. … [University officials] just can't fall back on a little post on a website that says we recognize Egerton Ryerson's [role in residential schools]."

The other nine demands focus on creating more inclusive spaces on campus and preserving Indigenous culture and language.

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Sarah Dennis is a member of Ryerson University's Indigenous Students' Association and is Anishinaabe. As a member of the Nipissing First Nation, she was raised in Toronto and is studying sociology and social work at Ryerson.

Ms. Dennis said she hopes the demands placed on the university's administration will bring attention to the conditions she said Indigenous people "have to operate in."

"The social climate in our institution is inherently racist," she said.

Ms. Dennis said she fully supports the removal of the statue of Egerton Ryerson from the university's campus in downtown Toronto and the other demands.

"The statue represents a source of a significant and negative representation of a painful part of our history that is still reflected in our current state."

But not all reaction to the students union's demands has been positive, with some users commenting on the Facebook post that they do not support what the RSU is doing.

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"I don't want to pay $76.92 this semester so the RSU can tell me to be ashamed for liking Ryerson and Canada," Rahul Bilimoria posted.

Another poster, Tori Nixon, wrote: "There was a whole page acknowledging [Egerton Ryerson's] involvement in the residential school system in my graduation program in 2014 so I don't think saying that Ryerson fails to talk about this is accurate."

Ms. Nyaga, the student union president, said some resistance is to be expected. "I think it just demonstrates that racism is still real and that the pressure Indigenous students and community face is still real.

"So far, the response we have gotten is not surprising, but you do always hope for better," she said.

Indigenous students at Patricia-Keewatin District School Board were graduating at about half the rate of non-Indigenous students. So at Dryden High School they implemented a unique program with a graduation coach who works alongside the students - not as a teacher - to guide them through high school. So far the program seems to be working.
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