An Assault on Decency
Egerton Ryerson is the wrong target — write Ronald Stagg and Patrice Dutil
SPECIAL TO The Dorchester Review.
THE CITY OF TORONTO in March announced it would revise 34 neighbourhoods on the city map to bring the current 140 up to 154. That one of these neighbourhoods was to be named “Ryerson” sparked one of those copy-cat history-lite “debates” that sometimes make it so irksome to be a Canadian: the baseless accusation that some quite worthy figure of the past was a complete villain. Predictably the same individual — Dr. Egerton Ryerson, a great Torontonian by any standard — was the target of a campaign to remove a monument in his memory on Gould Street in downtown Toronto, and even change the name of a university inspired by his memory.
Ryerson (1803–1882) was one of the most influential figures in the history of Upper Canada and was in his day considered the very paragon of the forward-looking, progressive, inclusive, worldly intellectual. He was a beacon of educational reform, a fighter against injustice of all sorts, and a kind and generous man. A Methodist minister, he pushed for religious equality and has long been celebrated as the founder of Ontario’s public school system.
The Ryerson Institute of Technology was founded in 1948 as a vocational college by the Ontario government to train war veterans for new careers. The name was an obvious one at the time, chosen because he was the greatest pioneer of accessible education in the province’s history. It was updated in 1963 with the British-sounding addition of “Polytechnical Institute,” but twenty years later administrators and faculty were lobbying to change the name again. And so Ryerson Polytechnic University was born in 1993, and it became Ryerson University tout court in 2002.
Ryerson University’s good name was challenged from an entirely different and unexpected angle when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began casting its highly political and sometimes unhistorical shadow in 2008. The TRC soon made the news for suggesting that Dr. Egerton Ryerson was involved in creating the Indian residential schools that existed after the 1870s. Was it true? No. But no matter. It sounded plausible that an obscure 19th century figure would have a dark side, and anyway would be highly damaging — if you are a cultural warrior out to deface any glint of nobility in our forebears.
The flame having caught, Ryerson University’s Aboriginal Education Council issued a paper in 2010 declaring that Dr. Ryerson had played a defining role in establishing Residential Schools. The document contained misspelled names and statements that were not backed up by references. Based on limited research, it included material from a discredited, defrocked United Church minister, and was not subject to peer review; nor was it circulated outside a small circle of administrators. Nevertheless, Ryerson University soon inserted a statement on its website asserting that Egerton Ryerson had indeed played a nefarious role in Indigenous education.
THE SINCLAIR COMMISSION’S recognition that Ryerson was not a party to creating post-Confederation residential schools should have been enough — given the oracular status accorded everywhere to the TRC — for the University to reverse the campaign against its own namesake. Nevertheless, Ryerson’s administration unveiled a plaque in 2018, right next to the statue of the good Doctor, that repeated the misunderstandings of 2010. The plaque declares:
By directly tying Egerton Ryerson to cultural genocide, the plaque makes a mockery of the monument it stands next to. Protestations that the facts were being ignored, and that the plaque was gravely misleading, fell on deaf ears. What does Sitting Bull have to do with this story? The Sioux chief sought refuge in Canada for a few months in 1877 before returning to the U.S. Of course, with the current tendency to “know” only one “bad” thing without any historical context, activists unconnected with the university who knew only that Egerton Ryerson was some sort of white supremacist insisted that the statue itself be removed. Student activists launched their own campaign to remove Ryerson’s name from any part of the University, including the newspaper of the Journalism School. The monument was twice vandalized in the summer of 2020 and three people have been charged with mischief.
In response, the University administration established a Task Force in the fall of 2020 “to recommend actions to reconcile the legacy of Egerton Ryerson.” The natural response of anyone who knew the wider Ryerson story was: “reconcile with what?” The administration’s grammar leaves much to be desired. That the committee’s composition does not accurately reflect the university community is obvious for all to see. Given that there is no basis for the claims to begin with, this entire review of Egerton Ryerson should collapse like a house of cards.
But the movement against Ryerson belongs to a wider trend to indulge in rage against “white men” who dominated Canada’s history. But this case is special because Egerton Ryerson is patently innocent of the charges. The Progressive Conservative government of Ontario agreed in the late 1940s with the notion of dedicating a new post-secondary institution in his honour because Ryerson represented everything that was good in educational policy. The location near Gerrard Street and Yonge had a spirit to it: it was the location of the Normal School (the teachers’ college) Ryerson founded in 1847. Its facade has been preserved, something of a marvel in downtown Toronto, and still stands in the university quadrangle.
RYERSON WAS BORN in a United Empire Loyalist family in Charlotteville Township near the northern shore of Lake Erie. He grew up on a farm and learned the crafts of agriculture and animal husbandry. He was an able and dedicated student attracted to Bible study but in the emerging Non-conformist spirit of the age he was also a rebel. Instead of following family footsteps in the Anglican Church, he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church when he was seventeen years old. He became a Methodist minister and dedicated his life to various missions. The term “missions” should not carry a negative connotation because in many instances at this time the Indians wanted to know their new religion and asked for a missionary to be sent to teach them.
Ryerson’s Methodism, of course, set him in opposition to the government, its supporters, and the Anglican domination of Upper Canada. As in Great Britain, non-Anglican religious movements were seen as a challenge to the would-be establishment in Upper Canada. He became the first editor of The Christian Guardian in 1829 and set his sights on John Strachan, the Anglican Archdeacon of York (renamed Toronto in 1834), demanding that the rights of the Methodists be equally respected. He travelled to Britain in 1836 to appeal for justice directly to the Crown. The son of Americans who espoused what had become a very “American” denomination made Ryerson something of a marked man. In many minds, he was a political revolutionary, a reputation that softened as he moved closer to the political centre in the 1840s.
Turning his energies to education, he caught the attention of the new guard that led the province after the rebellion of 1837. Ryerson argued in the late 1830s and early 1840s that the educational system of the province was ineffective. It was poorly governed, disorganized, and underfunded. He argued that the legislation that governed schools led to inconsistencies across the province in terms of who attended schools and what they were taught. His solution was stronger authority and a relatively tight regulation. In 1844, he was appointed Superintendent of Education for Canada West and set about transforming the school system. His revolutionary actions had a lasting impact.
Shortly after his appointment Ryerson undertook a year-long tour of educational establishments in Britain and Europe, to learn about the most enlightened teaching methods of the day as well as the leading practices in school administration. He paid close attention to what was happening in the more progressive centres in the United States, notably New York State.
He set quickly to work and in 1846 proposed a major school reform that would have a transformative effect far beyond Canada West. The new Common School Act stipulated that a General School Board be created to govern education and make recommendations for curriculum across the 20 school districts of the province. Regulations included provisions to ensure better teacher-student ratios, school management rules, lists of acceptable texts — preferably written by Canadians. The General School Board would be chaired by him, as Superintendent of Education, and would include six others named by the government. The Act recognized Catholic Schools as eligible for provincial funding.
The real impediment to education was still affordability and the evidence showed that only half school-aged children were actually attending classes. He lobbied hard to convince the government to make schooling a universal right in the province and finally succeeded in making a number of strides. The revised Common School Act of 1850 required that schools be funded by their local governments as much as possible. Many of the more prosperous municipalities were able to live up to that demand, but most did not. That goal was only achieved after Confederation, when Ontario passed a Comprehensive School Act in 1871. It made education mandatory for any child (boy or girl, properly segregated) up to age 12 and provided more funding for secondary schools. Ryerson was also a believer in post-secondary schools. He was among the founders of the Methodist Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, which soon became Victoria College, later part of the University of Toronto; and of the Normal School in Toronto dedicated to teacher training.
EGERTON RYERSON WAS deeply interested in the lives and education of Indigenous people. As a young man he was appointed to the Credit mission, home of the Mississaugas. At the Credit Mission, located in what is today the City of Mississauga, the 23-year old set out in 1826/27 to learn Ojibwe (Anishinaabemowin) and worked in the fields with the people of the settlement. “I was at that time a perfect stranger to Indians, and but little acquainted with their customs,” Ryerson reported in the American Methodist Magazine in 1827. “But the affectionate manner in which they received me, and the joy they appeared to feel on the occasion, removed all the strangeness of national feeling, and enabled me to embrace them as brethren, and love them as mine own people.”
The first Methodist missionary to live with the Credit Mississauga, Ryerson joined their fight to secure a title deed to their lands at the mouth of the Credit River, 12 miles west of Toronto. He stood by them to protect their remaining land base against the ever-encroaching British Canadian settlers (by this time, Indigenous peoples constituted less than 1% of the Canada West population). His hope, indeed the progressive way of thinking at the time, was to help Indigenous communities become farmers. He won their respect. The Credit Mississauga admired Egerton, who rolled up his sleeves, ate and lived and toiled alongside them. At a council fire in December 1826 the Credit Mississauga “adopted” the 23-year-old, giving him the Ojibwe name of a well-regarded recently deceased chief: “Cheechock” or “Chechalk,” who had belonged to the Eagle doodem. The name “Chechalk” meant “Bird on the Wing.” Ryerson also became a life-long friend of future chief Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), known as Peter Jones.
He never forgot his Mississauga friends. He hired two young Mississauga men as apprentices at his Christian Guardian: John Sawyer was son of the Head Chief, and William Wilson (or Willson), a gifted young man. During his long career, he also advanced the careers of a number of talented young Indigenous men. During his 1836-37 trip to England, Ryerson hoped to influence Queen Victoria, who ascended to the throne in June 1837, and appealed to church authorities and British government officials for the protection of the Anishinabeg’s remaining land base in Upper Canada.
IT IS THUS fundamentally wrong to blame Egerton Ryerson for creating residential schools. It was the chief Peter Jones, working with other prominent Methodists, who argued that the government should fund schools to educate Indigenous men in the new techniques in agriculture, so that they might survive in a colony where land to hunt and fish freely was rapidly disappearing. It is too often ignored that Indigenous people themselves wanted government-funded schools. By 1842, the Canada West authorities accepted the concept, as a way to put First Nations on farms and to eliminate the expense of annual treaty payments, which is not the same thing as trying to assimilate them. Assimilation was a natural process that had been happening anyway for generations; no culture is static in a dynamic colonial setting where both sides embraced the idea of progress.
Two years after Ryerson was appointed Superintendent, government officials met with thirty chiefs at The Narrows of Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching at Orillia. Together, they represented most of the First Nations in what is now south-central Ontario. After some discussion, almost all the leaders agreed that such schools were necessary, and many even agreed to use part of their treaty payments to help support them. A year later, on 18 March 1847, George Vardon, Civil Secretary in the Indian Department, wrote to Ryerson following a chance meeting in Montreal, and asked for Ryerson’s advice “in establishing the Manual Labour Schools for education of the Indian youth in this Province.” He asked for “suggestions (the result of your observations, & experiences in Europe) as you may conceive to be useful.” Vardon then urged Ryerson to act quickly. “You are aware that there are numerous persons in the colony, though actuated by different motives, who will alike rejoice in the failure of a plan which tends to place the Indian on a footing of perfect equality with their White Brethren.” It is extremely unlikely that a senior civil servant, such as Vardon, would say something that contradicted the views of his political superiors. According to his statement, the residential schools were not about negating First Nations’ culture, but rather about giving them the skills to function in a society increasingly dominated by European settlers. Vardon’s letter makes it clear that he expected Ryerson to deliver suggestions for programs that would elevate indigenous children in Ontario—and that he would have to expect pushback from reactionaries. The government approached Ryerson, an acknowledged expert on education, precisely because he was a progressive.
In the winter of 1847 Egerton wrote, upon the request of the Indian Department of the Province of Canada (united since the post-rebellion Canada Act that was proclaimed in 1841), a lengthy letter that recommended Indigenous agricultural training schools. It was a natural expression of something he had promoted since his days with the Mississaugas.
Egerton’s model for an Indigenous boarding school was Hofwyl, near Berne, Switzerland, an institution founded by Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg. Ryerson visited the school in 1845 and later drew upon Fellenberg’s educational reforms in his 1847 Report on a System for Public Elementary Instruction for Upper Canada. The Swiss boarding school for the rural poor seemed a logical inspiration for an agricultural school for Indigenous people. The school would eventually have to pay its own way (or almost). The young pupils would produce the crops, and handle the livestock, which would pay the bills. Entrance was voluntary. Ryerson’s intent was to have Indigenous people learn the use of tools and equipment required to farm in the European manner. In the end, graduates could run the boarding school or schools themselves. Farming would provide the Indigenous peoples with a sustainable way to survive, and they could indeed continue to exist as a separate people on their own lands.
The best guarantee for Indigenous students to stand on their own feet, Ryerson believed, was to become self-sufficient and independent. In that sense his approach was dissimilar from the federal Indian Residential Schools that were created in 1883 two years after Ryerson died. Ryerson was convinced that agricultural education was required because he feared that Indigenous communities would be destroyed unless they changed their economic life. He delivered general suggestions for a curriculum that were typical of his day.
IT IS OBVIOUS to say that it was a patronizing approach based on Euro-Canadian models, but in fact it had the support of most of the Indigenous leaders in what is now south-central Ontario. Ryerson participated precisely because he saw agricultural education as the best instrument to protect First Nations from advancing settlement and the inexorable onset of industrialization.
Two schools were established. They would be supervised by the government, and run by the Methodists, just like most of the on-reserve schools. They differed markedly from later residential schools, however. Teaching was done by teachers trained for the regular school system, not by clergy who might lack such training. Children could speak their own language — as was in fact often the case in residential schools, based on alumni oral history. Attendance was voluntary. Religion was a subject in the curriculum, not the caricature that we hear about today of a tool of forced conversion and assimilation. As a devout Christian, Ryerson would have been horrified by the abuses and cruelties later perpetrated on Indigenous children by some teachers in later residential schools.
The Province of Canada’s Indian agricultural schools were failures, mainly because the government refused to adequately fund them. Only two of three proposed schools were set up, forcing some students to live far from home. The farmland promised to graduates was not given. The combination of classroom studies and agricultural work created a too-gruelling schedule. But even so, in this small aspect of his career Egerton Ryerson demonstrated his uniquely humane instincts of generosity and recognition of the needs of minorities. This was the same man who boldly championed schools for minority Catholics and French-Canadians in a fiercely English-speaking and Protestant province.
It is therefore ridiculous and unjust that Egerton Ryerson stands accused of creating a residential school system designed to stamp out Indigenous culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The record is clear and convincing and — judging by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — undisputed. The conclusion is thus inescapable that the activist cabal agitating against this decent man is nothing but the product of an identity politics of destruction. Canadian citizens and their timid leaders must recognize that Egerton Ryerson has been falsely accused and reverse the tendency to attack genuine heroes.