Archive for the ‘Ontario Education’ Category


Toronto’s first Normal School for teacher training, the former Ryerson University, has a new name — Toronto Metropolitan University. CBC-TV’s The National newscast on April 26, 2022, covered the story with a short piece presented through the eyes of Indigenous social work student Sarah Dennis of Nipissing First Nation who led the campaign to remove Egerton Ryerson’s name from university because of what the CBC termed “concerns” about “his links to Canada’s residential schools.” Removing the Ryerson name from the university was a fait accompli after a band of marauding students defaced and toppled his statue in early June 2021, and the university’s Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force, made it one of their key recommendations.

Since the remains of 215 Indigenous residential school students were uncovered in Kamloops in late May 2021, the urgency of acting upon the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’s Calls to Action has affected all of us.  Horrible injustices happened in those Canadian residential schools and it’s high time to make amends. Speaking at Ryerson University in June of 2016, Commission Chair Murray Sinclair laid bare that tragic legacy and warned that “getting to reconciliation was going to be harder” than “getting to the truth.”  He also praised Ryerson University for its “commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion” noting “that is what his namesake now stands for.” No mention was made of changing the university’s name.

Watching that recent CBC-TV newscast upset me greatly as an Ontario-born and educated professor of education with a Doctorate of Education from OISE specializing in the history of Canadian education. What was truly disconcerting about that mainstream news report and most others was that it not only completely ignored Ryerson’s fundamental role in founding and shaping the Ontario public school system and instead perpetuated the questionable claim that he was “one of the primary architects of the residential school system.”

While historical figures move in and out of favour with the tides of popular opinion, the toppling of Egerton Ryerson in such a fashion is an outrage. Simply put, Canadian education history without Ryerson is like Shakespeare without Hamlet. It’s unthinkable that his American counterpart, Horace Mann of Massachusetts, would ever be treated with such disregard. Most surprising of all, none of the ranking academics in the Canadian History of Education Association (CHEA) have breathed a word, leaving his defense up to a courageous band of prominent history scholars, high school history teachers, public policy experts, and progressive reformers, many steeped in the Methodist ‘social gospel’ tradition.

Reverend Adolphus Egerton Ryerson was the undisputed founder of public schooling in Canada West (Ontario) and an unlikely candidate for vilification.  Two of his greatest defenders, Ryerson University professors Ronald Stagg and Patrice Dutil, provided an assessment starkly different than that of the Standing Strong Task Force report.  Ryerson, they pointed out in April 2021, was “one of the most influential figures in the history of Upper Canada and was in his day considered the very paragon of the forward-looking, progressive, inclusive, worldly intellectual. He was a beacon of educational reform, a fighter against injustice of all sorts, and a kind and generous man. A Methodist minister, he pushed for religious equality and has long been celebrated as the founder of Ontario’s public school system.”

As Superintendent of Education, the newly appointed Ryerson drafted the Common School Act in 1846 that established universal free access for children to schooling in Ontario. As a devout Protestant Methodist reformer, Ryerson campaigned fiercely against the Church of England (Anglican) as the state church and in favour of a more populist brand of social gospel Christianity and a broader form of democratic citizenship. Common schools, in his view, had a socializing task and should be built upon a Christian moral foundation, especially given the precarious nature of the colony, labour unrest, and divisive Christian sectarianism. Among his contemporaries, he exhibited “a spirit of egalitarianism” and openness to including the labouring classes and the poor in the public schools, in stark contrast to the more elitist Anglican thinkers of the time.

Ryerson fell short of being the “mythical hero” presented in the seminal education histories of Charles Phillips and C.B. Sissons, and later Canadian revisionist scholars such as Alison Prentice, J.D. Wilson, Robert Gidney, and Bruce Curtis revealed that his educational philosophy sought, in some ways, to implant “middle class values and attitudes” and to impart the virtues of industriousness, cleanliness, obedience, discipline and control. By the standards of his time, he still did not fit the label “conservative” because of his distaste for upper crust Anglican elitism and his Methodist reform instincts.


Canada’s Indigenous residential schools were horrible institutions and, especially since the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, anyone painted with the brush of association is tainted and bound to suffer consequences.  While Ryerson is blamed for instigating residential schools, that’s not quite accurate, to say the least. He did not invent the residential school because it was British colonial policy long before he took office. His views were shaped during 1826-1827 while he was missionary to the Mississaugas of Credit River and unlike many white settlers, he was neither ignorant or disrespectful of Indigenous people.

Working with the Mississaugas, Ryerson met and became a close friend of Methodist Ojibwe minister Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and supported their claim to a land base at the mouth of the Credit River.  For a decade after he left the mission, notably during an 1836-37 trip to England, Ryerson continued to press from the British Colonial Office protection for the Anishinaabeg’s remaining land base in Upper Canada.  Furthermore, Reverend Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882) died before “Indian boarding schools” became federal government policy (in 1883) and it’s those compulsory institutions which stand accused of being vile instruments of cultural genocide.

Ryerson’s involvement with what came to be federal Indian residential schools was limited to providing the Indian Department of the United Canadas with a 3000-word 1847 letter containing recommendations. The oft-cited recommendation read as follows: “It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings. Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.”  While his proposed framework may have carried some influence, Ryerson was not involved in the formulation of the policy.

Much like Peter Jones, he was concerned about the potential for cultural and economic displacement and favoured agricultural training schools, or “industrial schools” to prepare young men for changes in agriculture. Such thinking was popular at the time, especially among those familiar with the American Methodist Shawnee school considered “a progressive venture” possibly worthy of imitation. Two Methodist Indian schools established under his watch, Mount Elgin at Munceytown and Alnwick at Alderville were voluntary and entirely church-run institutions. It must be noted, in fairness, that Ryerson, like most of his contemporaries, permitted segregated schools to be established in Canada West and accepted the fact that, in many places, “prejudices and feelings are stronger than the law.”

Removing Ryerson’s name and expunging his legacy would have caused my dear old OISE professor, the late Willard Brehaut, author of  the lead essay in the 1984 book “The House that Ryerson Built,” to roll in his grave. As a former PEI School Inspector and founding OISE faculty member, Brehaut would have been shocked to learn that the enabling report made only passing reference to a “claim” that he founded the Ontario school system and made no mention whatsoever of a few of the enduring educational legacies of his 32 years in office:

  • A universal, free elementary education for all children
  • Authorized standard textbooks, the “Ontario Readers”
  • Establishment of Normal Schools (teacher’s colleges)
  • Professional certification of teachers
  • Teacher regulations – duties and responsibilities
  • Creation of local school boards and school districts
  • Compulsory school attendance law
  • Recognition for Roman Catholic separate schools
  • Established school divisions: elementary, secondary and collegiate levels

The facts speak for themselves: Superintendent Egerton Ryerson set in motion the creation of a modern, progressive public school system, and his masterful defense of common schools was utilized by chief superintendents in other provinces. In Brehaut’s words, the “main forces and trends that shaped Ontario public education” could all be traced back to the architect of the system, Egerton Ryerson.

Confronting grave injustices should not make matters worse by committing further injustices.  Without inflating or glorifying Ryerson’s role, it’s hard to ignore the significance of his 1846 report and his profound impact on the shaping of the system. Removing his name from Ryerson University and Toronto’s first Normal School simply does not pass the test of fairness.  Street justice, justified by a commissioned and one-sided university report, was administered swiftly without sober second thought.  It’s up to historians to call out glaring examples of presentism which fail the test of historical accuracy and violate the fundamental principles of sound historical thinking, for the sake of future generations.

Was erasing Egerton Ryerson’s legacy as founder of the Ontario school system and removing his name from the Toronto university justified – and, if so, on what grounds? How much weight should we put on a singular act in a career at Superintendent of Education spanning 32-years?  Where’s the evidence to support the allegation that Ryerson was a “racist” by the standards of his time? What lessons can be learned from the Ryerson University administration’s handling of this crisis? 

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