An open letter to a defender of Ryerson.
“He was long dead before later governments of the day created residential schools as we now know them.”“Reader takes exception to language used on part of the city web site”, Burlington Gazette, September 12th 2021
While advocating for free and compulsory education, Ryerson supported different systems for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. He supported the system of educating Indigenous students separately and converting them to Christianity, in order to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. Such schools had existed in New France since the 17th century. The first residential school in Upper Canada began operating in Brantford in 1831. Ryerson agreed with the findings of the Bagot Commission Report (1842–44); it recommended manual labour schools where Indigenous children were separated from their parents in order to achieve assimilation. […]
He proposed that the schools be run by religious organizations and overseen by the government[….] Ryerson did not invent the idea of residential schools. But his recommendations influenced the development of Canada’s devastating residential school system.“Egerton Ryerson”,The Canadian Encyclopedia (emphasis added).
Dear Burlington Gazette reader, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
The Residential School system was created by many people, but Ryerson was one the chief architects. Try reading the charmingly named “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, 1879” (https://archive.org/details/cihm_03651/page/n5/mode/2up) and tell me that Residential Schools weren’t envisaged from day one as a way of forced assimilation of the First Nations and destruction of their way of life by forcing children into residential schools.
If you care more about the name of a school than the bodies of thousands … and yes it is thousands … of children who died alone, separated from their loved ones, their way of life, their language, malnourished, abused, alone and confused, then I truly despair.
For God’s sake … think. If you had a child who was taken from you forcibly, put into a residential school, forced to adopt a foreign religion, beaten for speaking their own language, never allowed to return home, who then disappeared forever? What would you do? And say you received no word, no communication ever again? Or perhaps if you were lucky you received a letter from a priest or a nun, telling you that because of the expense, your child had been buried in the school graveyard, with no explanation of why they died, and no recourse to find out more. Think then of the tens of thousands more who lived, but were damaged for life by the experience.
And think. How many of your children died when they were at school? I’m going to guess zero. And I’m going to guess they weren’t buried in the schoolyard either. I don’t see many Burlington schools with extensive graveyards. Do you?
Ryerson was a major part of creating this system designed to destoy the ‘native’ way of life forever by brutal and enforced assimilation. Yes, Ryerson was an educator. Yes, by the standard of the day he was even ‘progressive’, but he was also a religious zealot more interested in saving souls than child welfare.
He was a religious zealot who recommended a system of forced conversion to Christianity and separation both from parents and non-indigenous society of indigenous children far too young to understand what that would mean for them. Who called for forced conversion even though Ryerson knew well that it was against the longstanding tenets of his faith. A man whose recommendations for the First Nations, as of many other things during his career, just happened to benefit the Methodist Church of which he was the Canadian leader.
And even if he was just as enlightened an educationalist as we have been led to believe, the last time I checked we don’t still honour statues of Mussolini because he made the trains run on time. We don’t need to honour educators who also took part in genocide.
The history you are so keen to defend, dear Gazette reader, is not history. It is lies. Can you not see that the full story of the Residential Schools is infinitely more important then the name of a school and its grounds?
[This article started as a comment posted at The Burlington Gazette. It is reposted here with several important corrections of historical fact from the first version arising from it being written by somebody in a very bad mood.]