by Thomas Walkom

Should Toronto’s Ryerson University change its name out of respect for Indigenous people? The Ryerson Students’ Union says yes (although there are some hints it may be changing its mind). So does the school’s Indigenous Students Association. Other students are said to be split.

The specific debate is very modern. Governments and institutions are sensitive these days to charges that they have been casually indifferent to offences committed against First Nations, Inuit and Metis.

That sensitivity has been heightened by the publication in 2015 of the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. It reveals, in encyclopedic detail, the wrongs inflicted on Indigenous families by the now-defunct residential school system.

So it should come as no surprise that the practice of honouring people even remotely connected with the implementation of that system – including 19th-century educator Egerton Ryerson – should come under attack.

But the Ryerson controversy also raises more general questions about the nature of history. How should we remember the past? Should we judge complicated historical figures against the moral standards of the modern world? Should we judge them at all? Or should we content ourselves by trying to understand why they did what they did?

Egerton Ryerson was one such complicated figure. He is canonized today as the founder of Ontario’s universal public-school system. But he was also a difficult man whose views were always firmly held (even when they contradicted themselves) and who was routinely, and not always unfairly, accused of hypocrisy.

His motives were in part Christian. He was a devout Methodist minister. But, as historian Alison Prentice has pointed out, Ryerson and other “school promoters” were also most practical.

A universal, compulsory school system, they figured, would reduce crime by keeping lower-class urchins off the streets.

It would also allow the state to inculcate in these urchins sober middle-class values such as neatness and punctuality that might allow them to work productively in Ontario’s burgeoning capitalist economy.

But Ryerson’s concerns also included the education of Indigenous children. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report points out, by the 1840s, education reformers – and some First Nations chiefs – were looking for a way to better prepare Indigenous children for a changing world.

Ryerson’s proposed solution, which he outlined in an 1847 letter, was to set up what he called industrial or manual schools aimed at teaching Indigenous children how to become farm labourers.

It’s worth noting, as the commission report points out, that Ryerson was not alone in this. His ally and fellow Methodist Kahkewaquonaby, a chief of the Credit River Mississaugas, also argued for such a scheme, saying that if it were to succeed, Indigenous children would have to be separated from their parents.

The commission report describes Kahkewaquonaby, also known as Peter Jones, as a “hard-working advocate of the interests of First Nations” who was trying to figure out a way for Indigenous people to become economically independent.

However, the solution that he and Ryerson supported eventually led to the travesty of the residential school system.

In short, they were wrong. Should Ryerson be airbrushed from history as a result?

Ryerson University’s solution to date has been to openly acknowledge both sides of his legacy – the good and the bad. That seems reasonable to me. I’m reluctant to rewrite history. Had I been alive in 1916, I would have opposed the decision, taken in a fit of wartime patriotism, to rename the Ontario city of Berlin as Kitchener.

But the decision on whether to rebrand Ryerson University is not mine. It is ultimately the Ontario government’s. And the government will do, presumably, whatever delivers the least political grief.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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