Content warning: This article describes abuses committed as a part of the Canadian residential school system and contains mentions of anti-Black racism.
On June 10, Victoria College at U of T announced that it will cease the use of Egerton Ryerson’s name for honorifics due to his contributions to the residential school system in Canada, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families, and inflicted widespread abuse and mistreatment. Ryerson had many ties to Victoria College during his lifetime, and served as the college’s first president and principal.
The decision effectively renamed Ryerson House — a section of the Burwash Hall residence building — to ‘First House,’ its original name. According to Victoria University Communications Officer Liz Taylor Surani, the plaque that read “Ryerson House” was removed immediately following the June 10 board decision.
Victoria University began the evaluation process on Ryerson’s name in 2019, when the college’s first year Vic One program changed the name of the ‘Ryerson Stream’ to Education Stream.
Victoria University Media wrote to The Varsity that renaming Ryerson House represented a re-evaluation of Ryerson’s actions, namely that he “[enabled] a discriminatory model of education.” They added that a subcommittee of the Board of Regents would be looking into the Presidential Report for other potential amendments.
Discovery of mass graves
Six years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the residential school system was a system of cultural genocide that has had devastating long term effects on Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Victoria College’s decision to end the use of Ryerson’s name comes amid renewed discussions of the residential school system after the recent discovery of unmarked mass graves of children who were sent to residential schools in Kamloops, British Columbia and Brandon, Manitoba. The gravesites found in British Columbia and Manitoba have increased calls for investigations of other former residential schools, where survivors believe there may be more unmarked graves.
Following the discovery of the mass graves, spaces named after Ryerson have come under renewed scrutiny beyond Victoria University, and a recent protest at Ryerson University resulted in the toppling and vandalism of a statue of Egerton Ryerson on university grounds. Calls for Ryerson University to be renamed have continued to grow.
In June 2021, Victoria University released the Presidential Report on the legacy of Egerton Ryerson by President William Robins, which outlined the way that Ryerson’s actions and beliefs contributed to the residential school system in Canada, and stated further commitments to reconciliation.
The president’s report was created following a research panel, as well as a series of conversations between Robins and the Indigenous Advisory Circle at Victoria University.
In recent years, as more information about his ideas has surfaced, Egerton Ryerson has come under significant scrutiny. According to the Presidential Report, the movement to reassess Ryerson’s legacy began in the late 1990s, when researchers found an 1847 letter sent by Ryerson to George Vardon of the Department of Indian Affairs.
The letter, written in 1847 by Ryerson, proposes the involvement of the Methodist Church in residential schools, recommending residential schools as a place for Indigenous young men to become agricultural workers while they are engaged in comparatively few hours of academic work. In the words of the panel report, Ryerson “recommended turning Indigenous students into a racialized servant class.”
The panel report also revealed that Ryerson passed the Common Schools Act of 1850, which required Black children to be segregated in schools.
The Presidential Report also outlines four items that Victoria University plans to use to advance truth and reconciliation at the college, and mentions that the four items will be accompanied by additional action.
These include increasing inclusion of Indigenous peoples in all aspects of Victoria College; creating spaces dedicated to significant Indigenous figures; compiling resources that discuss Ryerson for the use of every member of the college; and increasing the number of Indigenous people who conduct research using Victoria University archival holdings, which provide records on Indigenous communities in the nineteenth century and the relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers.
Response from VUSAC
In an interview with The Varsity, Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) President Jerico Raguindin and Vice-President External Sooyeon Lee expressed their support for the decision.
In 2019, VUSAC released a document titled “Renaming Ryerson,” outlining recommendations to rename Ryerson House and the Ryerson Stream, which have now been renamed to ‘First House’ and the ‘Education Stream,’ respectively.
Lee expressed satisfaction at seeing these changes, although they wondered why the name ‘First House’ had been chosen instead of renaming the house after an Indigenous activist or word.
The Presidential Report indicates that a couple of scholarships remain in Ryerson’s name. Any amendment to the scholarships would be under the jurisdiction of the Victoria University Senate. Raguindin said that the VUSAC plans to lobby the senate to change the names for the scholarships.
Two members of the research panel for the Presidential Report — Margaret Sault and Bonnie Jane Maracle — declined to comment.
If you or someone you know is in distress because of the recent news about residential schools, you can call:
- Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 (available 24 hours a day),
- Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310,
- KUU-US Crisis Line at 250-723-4050,
- Talk4Healing Help Line at 1-855-554-4325.