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.]

4 Comments

  1. “It annoys me that I’m adding more words to a debate that is simply not the part of this story that matters. Put dead children on one side of the scale, and put Edgerton Ryerson’s name on the other side. Which deserves the greater attention?”

    That seems to be the problem, it is not an either or question. Residential Schools and Edgerton Ryerson are two different stories linked more by time than events.

    The history of residential schools and atrocities that took place was and is clear by most accounts and needs to be addressed. The history of Edgerton Ryerson by most accounts, including those referenced in Lynn McDonalds article do not link him to those schools or atrocities.

    In your article, some how, you have inexplicably linked one to the other.

    1. Author

      https://theconversation.com/egerton-ryerson-racist-philosophy-of-residential-schools-also-shaped-public-education-143039

      Ryerson was one — but perhaps the most influential — of the multiple Canadians who recommended, designed and built the Residential School system. He also established segregation of Black children into different schools, along with Catholics, Protestants, the blind, deaf, mentally and physicially disabled, the poor and the orphaned. Only white students were given the advantage a farsighted education designed to encourage lifelong learning and personal advancement, because only they, in Ryerson’s view, had potential to be anything other than labourers.

      Ryerson wanted indigenous students to work 8 to 12 hours a day, from age 4, ‘with little time for academics’. Their only hope of salvation in his view was to be forcibly ripped from their culture, their language, their religion, their family and their traditional ways of life. That is cultural genocide, but the intent was to extinguish Canada’s ‘inferior’ peoples as recognizable entities.

      That is called genocide.

      I am the first to say the focusing on Ryerson and Macdonald alone is very much missing the point. The point is the totality of colonial culture as inherited by Canada from Britain was based on a view the racial superiority of white people, and their right to do with the world as they saw fit. The full fallout from that period of history is very much not over, either in Canada, or Africa, or Asia. But that does not get Macdonald and Ryerson remotely off the hook.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comment.

      Well, I’m also a former history professor (kind of, and albeit they’re not called that in the UK) at the University of St Andrews, so I guess we’re quits on that one. It’s disappointing that a former NDP MP would even consider writing for the National Post in its current climate of hysterical defence of statues and school names against the ‘woke’ attack of dead children. Do you think McDonald would be as vocal defending Ryerson if she was still an NDP MP?

      It annoys me that I’m adding more words to a debate that is simply not the part of this story that matters. Put dead children on one side of the scale, and put Edgerton Ryerson’s name on the other side. Which deserves the greater attention?

      If Ryerson’s reputation as an educationalist deserves to survive, believe me it will do in the hands of future historians writing revisionist PhD theses and monographs that will kick back against the current orthodoxy, as every generation does. Ryerson does not need school names and statues to defend him.

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