The head of a statue depicting Egerton Ryerson has turned up at Land Back Lane in Caledonia.
Ryerson’s statue was toppled from its perch at the university that bears his name after a march in Toronto on June 6 that brought an estimated 1,000 people from Queen’s Park to the downtown campus.
They were there to protest Ryerson — a 19th-century educator who helped shape Canada’s residential school system — and honour victims of the boarding schools for Indigenous youth, sparked by the discovery in May of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
Details are murky as to how the paint-splattered statue’s head — partially caved in by hammer blows and with a strip of black tape still across its mouth — found its way to the hard-packed clay of 1492 Land Back Lane in Caledonia, a 25-acre front line in the assertion of Indigenous land rights.
But on June 8, Skyler Williams of Six Nations was standing high on a hill overlooking the occupied construction site, rotating the statue’s head on a brass pole.
The crumpled head has an unimpeded view of the camp, where 11 tiny homes and a few larger buildings dot the barren landscape, alongside 10 vegetable garden plots and three white pine saplings, newly planted in memory of the children who died at Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Their remains, Williams said, are proof the Canadian government was not only trying to exterminate Indigenous culture through the residential school system, but Indigenous lives.
“There weren’t rattles and drums in that hole,” he said. “Those were our children, our people in that hole.”
Many Canadians were shocked by news of the discovery. Williams had a different reaction.
“Disappointment,” he said. “I was disappointed that people needed to see 215 bodies of dead kids to realize what we’ve been saying for the last 50 years was true. There was a level of anger for me.”
He compared the bulldozers that cleared the land on McKenzie Road — which land defenders contend is unceded Haudenosaunee territory within the Haldimand Tract — to Indian agents and police “ripping” children out of their homes to attend residential schools, from which thousands did not return.
Many more were abused and left with physical wounds and emotional scars that continue to affect their descendants.
“There needs to be some accountability,” Williams said, adding with so much information coming to light about residential schools and other historical injustices, ignorance is no longer an excuse for government inaction.
“Now everybody sees everything,” he said. “There isn’t much hiding of anything anymore.”
Ryerson’s head comes to rest just down the road from the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, a residential school better known to students as “The Mush Hole” in reference to the bland, soggy offerings fed to the residents. The land back movement, Williams said, is in part an attempt to secure space for Indigenous people to “deal with that trauma and heal.”
Williams said the Ryerson statue’s head would stay at Land Back Lane unless another First Nation asks to borrow it.
“It belongs to the movement,” he said.
In a June 6 statement, the university said it will not replace the toppled statue.
For years, school leaders have been under mounting pressure to change the institution’s name, resulting in a task force announced in September.
In a May 11 letter published by the Yellowhead Institute, an Indigenous-led think tank based at the university, Indigenous students demanded the university immediately drop the Ryerson name rather than wait for the task force review.
“Until it is met, we will erase Ryerson ourselves, removing the university’s current name from our email signatures, CVs, and other professional communications and replacing it with an X,” the letter reads.
To Williams, taking down the statue is a positive symbolic step, but he said “there needs to be a lot more done” to atone for the thousands of children who were denied the chance to grow into adulthood and have families of their own.
“This isn’t justice. There needs to be some systemic change that really sees our community’s voices heard,” he said.
“So I hope this small token — and this is a very small token — lights some fires under some people to make some actual change.”
—With files from Kate McCullough
J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter based at the Hamilton Spectator. The initiative is funded by the Government of Canada