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Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Who has the luxury of ignoring history? I certainly did, when I was a journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto. Wait: That wasn’t even its name back in the late 1980s. It was called Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, one of three name changes it’s had over the years. If justice prevails, it will soon have one more.

When I was a student I’d walk past the signs bearing the school’s name, and think nothing of it. Or I’d hurry past the statue of Egerton Ryerson, a name that meant nothing to me, except that it had been given to the school’s mascot, Eggy the Ram. I had the luxury of ignoring history.

That statue was pulled down last week, part of a continuing reckoning with Canada’s genocidal past. Students and some faculty had been asking for the statue to come down for years, for the school’s name to be changed. It took the reported discovery of the remains of 215 children found at a Kamloops residential school for the situation to reach a resolution – and for Egerton Ryerson to lose his metal head.

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Ryerson statue toppled as calls amplify for name change at Toronto university

I was tempted to write “the unimaginable discovery” of the burial site, but it wasn’t unimaginable at all. Not for people who don’t have the luxury of forgetting history. Not for the survivors or their descendants, who live every day with the pain of that legal policy of child kidnapping.

It was Egerton Ryerson who laid the groundwork for that system in his thinking and writing. We didn’t learn that in our mandatory Canadian history class at Ryerson. Was his name mentioned at all? Perhaps briefly as an early Canadian educational reformer, on fire with missionary zeal. But his zeal to assimilate Indigenous populations by removing their children to misery factories? Nothing on that. Nothing at all.

Maybe I was forgetting something. Much of that time is lost in a beer haze. Surely we were taught something about the most consequential policies of the man our school was named for? I reached out to two friends who’d been in the program with me and they confirmed it. Our history class was a Ryerson-free zone.

The campus itself should be a Ryerson-free zone, if you ask me. The university struck a committee last year to consider a name change. Some Indigenous students and faculty, and those who side with them, have taken to removing the school’s name from their correspondence and are calling it “X University” instead. The journalism school has committed to changing the names of its publications.

To those who will, inevitably, whine about history being erased, let me point out that official names change constantly, and often out of commercial considerations far less important than a fuller understanding of our past. I don’t write “Muddy York” as part of my address. If pressed, my fellow alumni will admit that our school was most often known not by its official name but by the pejorative “Rye High.”

The streets around the university bear witness to history constantly on the move. Theatres and shops and schools change names; buildings are razed. There was a women’s dorm called Willard Hall, operated by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Canada, where boys were not allowed past the lobby lest any licentious behaviour break out. Now it’s Covenant House, a refuge for homeless and other at-risk teens. I like the irony.

In my day, the journalism school was located in the former chancery of the Archdiocese of Toronto, so we were learning to be information-gatherers in the very heart of the residential-school machinery. The last residential school wouldn’t close till 1996, six years after I graduated. I don’t remember anyone asking any questions about this, but then there weren’t a lot of Indigenous students in the program. In fact, there may have been none.

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The reckoning is happening across the country, not quickly or easily, but because activists have their shoulders to the wheel. An elementary school in Hamilton named after Ryerson will soon have a new identity. In Halifax, a park once named for Edward Cornwallis is now named after something everyone can agree on, Peace and Friendship. John A. Macdonald’s name has been removed from a building on Queen’s University’s campus. Heads continue to roll – only off of plinths, but that’s a form of justice, too.

Carleton University has embarked on a “new names for new times” initiative, and the school offers a succinct explanation of where we’re at: The historical names on campus are “not representative of our community or the current Canadian population.” Much of our country is still in thrall to an era when florid gentlemen sought to enrich each other at the expense of people who did not look like them. It should not be forgotten; but there’s no reason it should ever be celebrated again.

Symbols are important, especially for those who don’t find them merely symbolic. But the toppling and the renaming has to be accompanied by concrete action. The calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report must finally be fully implemented. The federal government could stop its costly litigation against survivors and Indigenous children. (Justin Trudeau and his cabinet this week refused to vote on a non-binding motion in Parliament to do exactly that.)

Words can be as hollow as those statues, or they can carry the weight of action. So can a name. I hope by this time next year, my old school will be sending me fundraising letters under a different one.

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