Anne Spice is an assistant professor of Indigenous environmental knowledges and a Tlingit member of Kwanlin Dün First Nation.
I joined the growing Indigenous faculty at Ryerson University in 2020. My family was thrilled as I was welcomed into an institution that seemed committed to heeding the calls of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and supporting community-based work. It seemed to be a perfect fit, except for one thing.
The name of Egerton Ryerson follows me. He clings to every professional accomplishment. He haunts my bio. He barges into my introductions and shouts his name at the beginning of my CV. He signs off every email I send. I am bound to him, forced to carry him with me. His name is always in my mouth.
Recently, the university’s task force asked how we should “reconcile the legacy of Egerton Ryerson,” the educator and religious leader who gave the institution its name. Note the shift from reconciliation with Indigenous people to the reconciliation of uncomfortable histories. Note the burden on Indigenous students, faculty and staff to detail why it is painful to link our dreams, accomplishments, challenges to the legacy of a man who believed that even “civilized” Indians were only fit for industrial schools. Who didn’t see the point of educating girls past an elementary school level.
If this university reflected Egerton Ryerson’s legacy, I would not be teaching here. Not a single Indigenous student or professor would be here. He could not have imagined a world where an Indigenous woman taught at an institution bearing his name. I was never supposed to make it this far. The residential school system that Ryerson dreamed up has caused deep and enduring harm to our families. How can I trust a university that bears his name to be serious about reconciliation?
My grandfather went to Carcross/Choutla residential school. It was an Anglican industrial school. It was exactly what Egerton Ryerson imagined: a denominational boarding school focused on manual labour. My grandfather did manual labour as a small child. He was horribly abused. We don’t know much more than that. He carried the trauma of it through his life, and it led to his early death. This is Egerton Ryerson’s legacy. This is what he imagined for us. This was the reward for being deemed “civilized” enough to earn a public education.
Despite Ryerson, my mother left home at 18 and became the first in her family to attend university. She now holds two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees. Despite him, I pursued a doctorate and now hold an assistant professor position. Despite him.
Every day I am forced to speak his name, to carry it with me, to have pride in it. I should not be asked to do this, and neither should any Indigenous faculty, student or staff. I should not be asked to repair the legacy of someone who envisioned the school that destroyed my grandfather. If we are to reconcile with the dead, then I choose to reconcile with my grandfather, and the others who are gone, victims of a genocidal system. I choose to honour those who have no statues to outlast their lives-cut-short.
Whose names are held and coddled and carried, and whose are forgotten? Whose life and work should be associated with my accomplishments as an Indigenous woman, as the grandchild of a residential school attendee? While the legacy of this champion of residential schools is debated and lauded, my grandfather’s name fades away.
Peter LeBarge. My grandfather’s name was Peter LeBarge.
Enough with the task forces and committees. We have paraded our trauma, unearthed our histories, calmly explained our pain and struggle. We have had our humanity put on display as others debate a “complicated” history. The university does not need panels of white historians to gauge what is right. Stop forcing Indigenous people to carry the legacy of a man who didn’t view us as fully human. Remove the statue. Change the name.
In the meantime, I will remove his name from my emails, from my CV, from my bio, and replace it with an “X.” I know many others will do the same. Historically, Indigenous people have signed with an “X” under conditions that do not fully recognize or honour Indigenous lives. It is a sign of assent under duress. If the university wishes us to restore his name, they will have to explain to us why we should carry his legacy forward when it is already manifest in the generational trauma our families suffer.
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