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Egerton Ryerson doesn’t deserve an anti-Indigenous label

Donald Smith is professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary

As a Canadian historian of nearly half a century's standing, I find the current controversy over Egerton Ryerson, the namesake of Ryerson University, totally baffling. I wonder how deeply his critics have probed into the past of the founder of the modern Ontario public-school system. Their portrayal of him as anti-Indigenous misrepresents the man completely.

Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) was a Christian minister. Perhaps this is the central problem. As the University of British Columbia anthropologist Kenelm Burridge said so well in his book, In the Way: A Study of Christian Missionary Endeavours (1991): "Whatever missionaries do or have done will be perceived as good by some, otherwise by others."

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At the Credit Mission, located in what is now Mississauga, young Egerton set out in 1826/27 to learn Ojibway. As he later wrote: "I must now acquire a new language, to teach a new people." The first Methodist (now the United Church) minister to the Mississauga (Ojibwa, or Anishinabeg) acquired a basic speaking knowledge. The future Mississauga chief, Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), known in English as Peter Jones, became a close life-long friend. The Credit Mississauga liked Ryerson. He rolled up his sleeves, worked beside them in the fields, ate and lived with them. He gained their respect. At a council meeting in December, 1826, they gave him the Ojibway name of one of their deceased chiefs: "Cheechock" or "Chechalk." The name meant "Bird on the Wing."

A decade later, Ryerson did his best to advance the studies of Henry Steinhauer or Shahwahnegizhik, an Ojibwa from the Lake Simcoe area, at the Methodist College that is now Victoria University in the University of Toronto. In the 1850s, Ryerson, as the superintendent of education for Canada West, welcomed Allen Salt, a Mississauga from the Rice Lake area near Peterborough to the Toronto Normal (teacher training) School, the predecessor of what is now Ryerson University.

So grateful was Steinhauer for his assistance and encouragement that he named one of his sons Egerton Ryerson Steinhauer. At Rev. Salt's last mission on Parry Island (Wasauksing) on Georgian Bay, the mission day school bore the name Ryerson. Only recently was the First Nations day school renamed, to Wasauksing Kinomaugewgamik.

As educational historian Robin Harris wrote in 1959: "Ryerson was Christian, first, last, and all the time; his religious principles were his first principles." Yes, he had a Christian agenda, but he also supported the Credit Mississauga's fight for a title deed to their Credit River reserve and their efforts to build a strong economic base for their community.

Ryerson was not the creator of the Indian residential-school system. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, vol. 1. The History, Part 1. Origins to 1939 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015), pp. 75-78, clarifies his outlook toward Indigenous education. In 1847, he did write a short report on Indian boarding schools where older male students could learn European-style agriculture.

In preindustrial Ontario, farming was the motor of the economy. As his educational model, he favoured the respected Hofwyl School for the Poor near Berne, Switzerland.

Jones and Ryerson were true friends, perhaps best described as "blood brothers." Toronto's Dundas Square borders Victoria Street. The site ofRyerson's home 150 years ago is located toward the eastern end of the urban park. Its actual site is now under Dundas Street East.Ryerson welcomed Mr. Jones and his wife to stay with his family for a month in the spring of 1856 while Ryerson sought the best medical advice to restore Jones's health. After the attempt to find a cure failed, Jones returned to his home in Brantford, where he died two weeks later. As Jones had requested while he stayed at the Ryerson's that spring, Ryerson gave the eulogy at his funeral on July 1, 1856.

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To describe Egerton Ryerson, or Chechalk as the Mississauga called him, as anti-Indigenous misses the mark. Back to you, Ryerson Students' Union, for further study.

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