At the end of May, the bodies of 215 Indigenous children were found buried in unmarked graves underneath the Kamloops Indian Residential School on the Tk’emlups te’ Secwepemc First Nation in BC. This discovery has reignited feelings of anger amongst Indigenous people, as well as wide layers of workers and students throughout Canada and has placed sites or institutions that bear the names of colonial figures under scrutiny once again. Students and faculty at Ryerson University, named after one of the architects of the residential school system, have resumed with vigour the campaign to remove Egerton Ryerson’s statue from campus and change the name of the university altogether.
On Monday, May 31, various groups organized a sit-in by the statue, laying over 200 pairs of children’s shoes at its feet alongside flowers and children’s toys. The statue of Egerton Ryerson was spray painted with the words “dig them up” and “apartheid”, while the walls behind it read, “Return them home—show the whole world how many of us you have murdered.” Over the past few days, hundreds of people have gathered to view the statue and pay their respects to the victims of residential schools, many bringing tobacco and sweet grass. The sit-in was organized by Not Another Black Life, who had three of their organizers arrested last summer for vandalizing the statue in protest of Egerton Ryerson’s support for segregated schools. There has also been a campaign launched at the campus titled “X University”. This campaign is led by Indigenous students and faculty who wish to rename the school as well as remove the statue of Egerton Ryerson himself. This culminated in a mass protest on Sunday, June 6 of over 2,000 people which resulted in the toppling of the statue. This shows the enormous anger and frustration that is burning among the youth towards Canada’s colonial past and is a testament to the mass support this movement has among the militant layers of students at Ryerson University and in Toronto overall. Sam Howard, a Metis student organizer with “X University”, told CTV News that the Ryerson statue represents “The systemic violence of putting black and Indigenous folks in segregated schooling.”
The university’s own school of journalism and school of disability studies have already renamed their respective publications, while campus programs such as the Design Fabrication Zone have also followed suit. It is clear that this is not just an issue of renaming a university or removing a statue—it is about centuries of colonial oppression and racism perpetrated by Canada’s ruling class, a legacy which Ryerson University itself is tied to. The university’s official response has come in the form of an “expert committee” titled the “Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force” that aims to determine “what the university can do to reconcile the history of Egerton Ryerson.” Unsurprisingly, the committee members were hand-picked by the university’s president, Mohamed Lachemi, who on Monday sent out a rather insulting email urging Indigenous students to “reach out for support” and stating that the school’s flag would be at half mast. It is clear that Lachemi and other administration members are totally unwilling to listen to the demands of the majority of students and faculty, let alone those who are Indigenous. For an institution that claims to be progressive, inclusive, and diverse, Ryerson’s response to continued calls for removal of the statue have amounted to nothing more than a punch in the gut.
The solutions brought forward so far are not good enough. For many years, faculty and students have been clear with their demands surrounding this issue. The university should be a community, a place where students’ voices are heard. Indigenous students are forced to walk by a statue of a man who pioneered their oppression and forced to put his name on their resume, serving as a constant reminder of both the deliberate oppression and subsequent broken promises for redress by both the Canadian state and the administration. The colonial legacy of Ryerson University is one that cannot be ignored and swept under the rug—it must be addressed immediately. Still, the university’s administration seems to have a vested interest in ignoring this problem and belittling students and staff who raise it. The only reason for this is that Ryerson University cares more about funding from private donors, maintaining its image, and not “rocking the boat”. This approach is extremely hypocritical, as the school cannot claim to champion Indigenous studies and provide services for Indigenous students while simultaneously ignoring their demands and erasing their rights. If Ryerson spends millions of dollars per year promoting their “progressive” image, then why are they refusing to grant their own students and faculty the ability to decide what happens on their own campus?
The problem at the core of this issue is that Ryerson University is run not by the students or faculty which make up its community, but by the Board of Governors and their administration that only cares about making a profit off the backs of students. The posturing of the administration will no longer suffice. The students keep the school running with their tuition, and the faculty with their labour. The administration has exploited us for far too long. This struggle is tied to a deeper struggle for education free from profit, and for a university run by the students and faculty themselves. By democratically controlling our universities here and across Canada, we can bring down not just Egerton Ryerson’s statue but also Canada’s for-profit education system. We must not just bring down the symbols of oppression, but use the energy of this movement to make real change.