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Outside Toronto City Hall stands a statue of a glowering Winston Churchill. A plaque at its base reads: "His faith and leadership inspired free men to fight in every quarter of the globe for the triumph of justice and liberty." What it doesn't say is that he was also an arch imperialist and fierce opponent of Indian independence who once described Gandhi as a "seditious Middle Temple lawyer" striding "half-naked" up the steps of the viceregal palace.

Should we tear down his statue? He was clearly wrong about India and his words have a nasty ring today, especially in a city with so many residents of South Asian background. But most people would still say: No, keep the statue. He was right about many other things, such as the Nazi threat, and the good he did far outweighed the bad. Even the bad should be judged in the context of the times. He was hardly the only Briton arguing that giving India its freedom would lead to disaster.

The same sense of balance should apply in the debate over Egerton Ryerson. Elements of the student union at Ryerson University say the statue of the famous educator should be removed and the name of the school changed. His ideas, they argue, helped lead to the residential school system for Indigenous children. So, as with Hector-Louis Langevin, whose name has just been pulled from the building that houses the Prime Minister's Office, because Langevin was one of the architects of the residential schools, he should be expunged.

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Read more: Ryerson Students' Union issues demands for Indigenous justice

The demand has kicked up a storm at Ryerson. The administration issued a squishy statement, typical of the craven attitude that most universities take on such issues. "Ryerson University values the equitable, intentional and ongoing engagement of equity, diversity and inclusion within every facet of university life," it said, neatly managing to avoid saying whether it agreed with erasing the name and image of its namesake.

But many students are baffled or annoyed, calling the name-change idea a silly distraction dreamed up by out-of-touch student politicos. Why rename Ryerson, one student, who said she was Indigenous, asked on Facebook. "It's the history of the school. You do not have to agree with it, but it is the history of what people back then were thinking. It is a reminder … No one's hands are clean when it comes to the history of Canada."

It is a good point. Canada's early leaders often had views that we find jarring today. John A. Macdonald himself had some pretty repugnant things to say about Indigenous parents.

There is no excusing that. But it won't do to try to scrub them away like a stain on the kitchen counter. Churchill, raised in the Victorian era, was a product of his world. So was Macdonald. So was Ryerson.

Ryerson is an important figure in Toronto and Ontario history. Raised an Anglican in a Loyalist family, he became a devout Methodist who served as a travelling preacher and a missionary to Indigenous communities, then a leading voice in the church. He was a force in 19th-century politics and the first principal of Victoria College.

His crowning achievement was organizing and expanding the schools. He pushed for free, compulsory early education. He set up a professional teacher-training school. He worked for standard school inspections and uniform textbooks. The inscription on his statue on Gould Street, at the heart of the Ryerson campus, calls him simply "Founder of the school system of Ontario." It's only right that a major institution of learning should bear his name.

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The knock against him is that he authored a report recommending the creation of all-year, live-in schools – he called them "industrial schools" – to teach farming and other skills to Indigenous boys. As Ryerson's website puts it: "While Egerton Ryerson supported education, he also believed in different systems of education for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children. These beliefs influenced the establishment of the Indian residential school system that has had a devastating impact on First Nations, Métis and Inuit people across Canada."

But Ryerson did not found or organize the residential schools, and his concept of special schooling for Indigenous youth was far from unique at a time when the prevailing view was that Indigenous peoples needed to be "civilized."

It is right that people today are casting a spotlight on that view, which led to so much harm to generations of Indigenous families. A democratic country shouldn't keep a gallery of saints in a sealed room, immune from criticism. It should examine and scrutinize, as well as celebrate, its heroes, noting all their sins and faults.

The massacre of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, has led some cities in the American South to purge symbols of their tainted past. New Orleans took down four monuments, including a towering statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Other cities are leaning toward keeping the monuments standing but putting up plaques next to them that lay out the misdeeds of the past. That is generally the wiser course – to use the monuments as a teaching opportunity, a way of remembering the way things were, how they have changed and how, in some cases, why they still need to change.

Blotting out the past is a mistake. Old Ryerson should be allowed to stay.

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