A school council meeting at Ryerson Public School will discuss the merits of changing the school’s name Monday as some parents and Indigenous community members point to the namesake’s role in designing residential schools
The discussion is not unique to London, as other institutions across Ontario bearing the name Ryerson, including Ryerson University in Toronto and Ryerson Elementary School in Hamilton, Ont., are also being challenged to consider renaming.
Egerton Ryerson lived in the early 1800s and was involved in the creation of Canada’s residential school system.
Jenna Rose Sands, a Cree and Anishinaabe artist, writer and activist, said pushback against name changing comes from discomfort and not wanting to do the work to learn and accept the pain colonial leaders inflicted on Indigenous people. But she said it must be done.
“It’s very important to change names because it acknowledges that they’re a problematic person,” Sands said. “Why do we have to name every school after every single white man of confederation? There are so many other more beautiful, inspiring things than these archaic old ideas that are very problematic and have caused a lot of harm.”
“You want to create an inclusive space of learning and education, but [the school] is named after one of the architects of a massive genocide of children in Canada,” Sands said. “What does that say?”
Sands said as a result of many people being unaware, a lot of emotional labour is placed on Indigenous people to be the ones to educate non-Indigenous people about Canada’s history.
“We’re already doing a ton of work so it is pretty exhausting,” she said.
Sands said she went to school in a public school system and there were no conversations about residential schools and the involvement of Canada’s founding fathers like Sir John A Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson’s part in building the residential school system.
“We’re not at a place where we can just brush off the history of a name because it still affects us, because we don’t know better, collectively.”
Thomas Peace, a historian of colonialism in early Canada and co-director of the Huron Community History Centre, said the renaming should be considered as a “learning opportunity.”
As a parent, I can only see good in terms of my children having to grapple with the fact that their school changed names.– Thomas Peace, Ryerson parent and historian
Peace teaches History at Huron University College in London and also has two children, seven and nine years old, who attend Ryerson P.S.
“Why would we not rename our school if the name of the school causes people to relive the violence that happened to their ancestors,” Peace said. “As a parent, I can only see good in terms of my children having to grapple with the fact that their school changed names.”
“The idea of renaming schools in particular, I think presents all sorts of opportunity to correct the historical record and common misperceptions about Canadian history and to create a conversation in which the students can engage with as well,” he said.
Peace points out that not only was Egerton Ryerson an advocate for residential schools, he was specifically involved with one of the leaders who built the Mount Elgin School, formerly located outside of London.
CBC London reached out to the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) to ask whether the issue would also be discussed at the upcoming Tuesday board meeting but did not get a clear answer.
“The community is in the early stages of conversations and as members of the Board we are prepared to listen and act,” said TVDSB chair Lori-Ann Pizzolato in an email. The board’s agenda had not been publicly posted at the time of publication.
Holly Evans’ daughter is in Grade 1 at Ryerson P.S. and she said she believes “it’s time for a change.”
“I personally didn’t know Ryerson’s legacy prior to this week, which I take full accountability for. It’s a little bit embarrassing not to know very much about Canadian history,” Evans said.
“We can do better as far as role model for our children and for our community on who we name our community school after.”
Another school in London, Sir John A. Macdonald Public School, also bearing a name of a controversial figure in Canada’s history, is facing similar backlash both here and across the province.
During Macdonald’s time as prime minister, his government enforced policies that starved Indigenous people to force them from their land, outlawed their ceremonies and centralized and expanded a residential school system that took generations of children from their families and tried to wipe out their cultures, as detailed during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Ryerson’s school council said they will talk about their position Monday but that any decision lies with the TVDSB.