The Vic One Education Stream was, until 2019, named after Egerton Ryerson. It was changed last summer after Victoria College students protested the name due to Ryerson’s involvement in the creation of the residential school system.
Ryerson, a prominent nineteenth-century Methodist minister, had been honoured by Victoria College for his role in establishing the college and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, as well as a free and compulsory public education system in Canada.
Ryerson also created blueprints for the residential school system, which forcefully relocated an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children between 1880 and 1996, with the purpose of assimilating them into Euro-Canadian culture.
Students were isolated from their culture and community, and many experienced physical and sexual abuse. As a result, intergenerational trauma continues to negatively and severely impact Indigenous communities. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that this policy amounted to “cultural genocide.”
This legacy is what inspired last year’s Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) to call on Victoria University’s Board of Regents to rename the Ryerson Stream. Its report on the matter stated that, “The man [Ryerson] was has no place being celebrated in this age of truth and reconciliation.”
The decision to rename passed with little fanfare by the board before the beginning of the academic year.
Ira Wells, Victoria College’s Academic Programs Director, wrote to The Varsity about renaming, noting that staff at Victoria had been “considering the appropriateness of the name of the Vic One Ryerson stream for some time,” and that they welcomed VUSAC’s report. He expressed that the renaming was “one part of a larger conversation that will continue for some time” between Indigenous communities and Victoria University.
Vibhuti Kacholia, Vice-President External of VUSAC, echoed this sentiment, saying that the union is looking into “other initiatives that we can put into play that are [going to] make Victoria University a better space for Indigenous people.”
Kacholia ultimately thinks renaming is important because “language is very powerful in the way that we not only have our institutions here but… students who are coming into our campus and their impressions of it and their feeling of comfort and home… are tied to the language that we use here.”
Jonathan Hamilton-Diabo, Special Advisor to the President of Victoria University on Indigenous issues and a member of the Kahnawà:ke community, said that these discussions serve to “[get] people thinking about the [issues around reconciliation].”
“This is not about blame anymore… There’s no one here alive who [is] part of [that history], but… they’re part of this institution. They’re part of the structure. And so it’s to say, ‘okay, we’re here today as this group. How do we recognize what’s happened, and then how do we move to… open up the spaces?’”
Hamilton-Diabo called the relationship between Ryerson and Indigenous peoples “complicated.”
Ryerson’s recommendations of segregated, religious, and industry-based boarding schools for Indigenous populations did, in large part, shape the residential school system. However, he also spent some time with the Ojibwa people at Credit River as a minister, where he befriended Kahkewaquonaby, a chief of the Credit River Mississaugas otherwise known as Peter Jones. Jones also supported a schooling system similar to the one that Ryerson advocated for, though one that was on “native… controlled terms,” according to Hamilton-Diabo.
He argued that at times, historical figures are thought of as “heroes and villains,” which reduces the complexity of historical relations. Renamings, he thinks, should not be done automatically, but should be undertaken through consultation with and for the benefit of Indigenous communities.
Ryerson’s support for the residential school system was not the only reason for the switch. Wells wrote that his name had been problematic during recruitment events, like the Ontario Universities Fair, since prospective students would mistakenly assume that the stream was affiliated with Ryerson University.
Why “Education Stream”?
According to Wells, the name “Education Stream” was chosen because it “most closely captures the academic purpose of the stream.”
This choice is contrary to the original name suggestion provided by VUSAC’s report.
VUSAC hoped to name the stream after Cindy Blackstock, a notable Indigenous and children’s rights activist who earned her doctorate at U of T, and has been described by The Globe and Mail as “Canada’s ‘relentless moral voice’ for First Nations equality.” Excluding the Education Stream, five of seven Vic One streams are named after white men, with no racialized or Indigenous members.
Though the name was potentially a placeholder at the beginning of the year, pending further discussions with the board, Alexa Ballis, President of VUSAC, wrote to The Varsity that the college has no intention of changing the stream name from “Education.”
Kacholia noted that VUSAC was not made aware of the decision to rename the stream, and continued by saying that “[the board] would have loved to be consulted in that process.”
Criticisms surrounding the renaming
Recent scrutiny over statues, institutions, and plaques honouring contentious historical figures garnered some pushback. Critics say that renamings constitute “historical revisionism,” which oversimplifies the complicated morality of Canada’s historical figures.
Kacholia said that VUSAC has “definitely [seen] a critique [that the renaming is] somewhat erasing history and embracing the legacy that Ryerson has here,” but remarked that “Ryerson is not forgotten in… the Vic One stream.”
Ballis hopes to add a description of Ryerson’s legacy on the Vic One website, and ensure that there are discussions in the Education Stream’s classroom surrounding its previous namesake.
An explanation about the stream name is not present on Victoria College’s website as of time of publication, and VUSAC does not yet know if these discussions have been implemented for this year’s cohort.
Kacholia stressed that VUSAC sees the renaming as a starting point for reconciliation. According to her, the union hopes to return to the report and avoid putting “the settler narrative onto whatever we think is best for the university because as settlers, we don’t really know what that is.”
A main priority going forward will be on consultations with Indigenous groups and the general student population through a consultation form. The consultation form has seen 187 responses, according to Ballis, who also provided The Varsity with some sample responses, which have been supportive of VUSAC’s report.
Kacholia said that she’d like to bring an updated report to the Board of Regents by the end of the year.
Reflecting on reconciliation efforts at U of T, Hamilton-Diabo said that he has seen improvements in relations with Indigenous communities. He added that, “It’s just become a wider discussion… [people] are now paying attention to it and wanting to engage in figuring [out] how to do this.”
“Reconciliation’s not a feel-good project. It’s not meant to make people feel good,” Hamilton-Diabo said. “It’s actually about understanding the stories and how Indigenous people… have come to a particular place collectively.”