Calls grow to rename Ryerson institutions across Ontario

WATCH: There are growing calls to rename educational institutions that honour Egerton Ryerson. Ryerson is a controversial figure given he helped design the residential school system across Canada. Katherine Ward reports.

The statue of Egerton Ryerson in downtown Toronto at Ryerson University has been a flashpoint of controversy for some time. On Monday night, new paint splashed across the monument and spray-painted words called for action in response to the remains of 215 children discovered in unmarked burial sites in Kamloops B.C.

Egerton Ryerson lived in the early 1800s and was a fundamental influence in developing the education system in Canada, including the residential school system. The calls have been growing for Ryerson University and other institutions bearing the name “Ryerson” to change their name and rethink its use.

Shannon Lambert walked by the statue every day for four years until her graduation from Ryerson University in 2018. Lambert is a member of the Flying Dust Nation as well as the Mistawasis First Nation.

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“I think they should have rethought it a while ago. I think they are very aware of the impact that it has,” Lambert said.

For her, the name and the man are painful reminders of her own father’s experience at a residential school.

“There were parts of their childhood that I never got to know, that you never asked questions about,” Lambert said.

“You just don’t talk about childhood with your parents when they survived something that traumatic.”

On Monday night, a group gathered at the foot of the statue in downtown Toronto, many having brought shoes as a tribute to the children who never made it back to their families.

Lua Mondor, an Oji-Cree and Inuk student, said the atmosphere was heavy at the gathering, and many people hope the statue is taken down.

“When we look at the statue we just see death, we just see blood, and we see a lot of death surrounding him,” said Mondor.

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School Trustee Cam Galindo has also drafted a letter for the Hamilton-Wentworth school board to discuss next week. Ryerson Elementary School is one of at least five schools in the GTHA that shares the controversial name.

“We should have done this many, many years ago, but we didn’t so we are doing it now,” Galindo said.

Throughout the day, the growing number of shoes and the words spray-painted on the wall garnered a lot of attention. Many stopped to take pictures, or to spend a few moments in silence.  Some parents brought their own kids, and said it was important for their children to understand the context.

“This is the kind of thing that we need to take very seriously, and we need to mourn today but also take action,” said Robin Fairchild, who was there with her daughter.

Lambert said she hopes the university will take action soon. Even to this day, while she has a degree, she refuses to hang it on the wall because of the pain it represents.

“I won’t hang it up because I am not comfortable or willing to see it in my home,” Lambert said.

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In November 2020, Ryerson University appointed the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force to complete detailed and expert historical research on the life of Egerton Ryerson and his legacy.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the university said the task force conducted thorough community engagement between March 16 and May 16, 2021. More than 6,000 submissions were received.

A full report is expected to be submitted to the president and board of directors of the university by the fall.

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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