One of the most distinguished citizens Norfolk County has produced has taken a beating in recent days in the court of public opinion.
Earlier this month, protesters in Toronto destroyed a statue of Egerton Ryerson after repeatedly marking the base with the words “dig them up” — an apparent reference to the 215 suspected graves identified in a radar survey at the former site of Kamloops, B.C., Indian Residential School.
An early educational reformer who laid the groundwork for much of Canada’s system of public education, Ryerson’s role in the creation of residential schools is less direct. He drafted an influential 1847 report calling for religious-run “industrial” boarding schools in order to instil “civilization” in the “North American Indian,” but was long-dead before mandatory schools on this model began opening up across the country.
Defenders of Ryerson’s legacy have often pointed out that he does not carry the markers of an anti-Indigenous historical figure. Ryerson spoke Ojibwe, developed a close relationship with the Mississauga people outside of modern-day Toronto and delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Peter Jones, a converted Ojibwe Methodist minister who had become one of Ryerson’s closest friends.
And Ryerson was fervently against one of the most defining horrors of the Indian Residential School system: strict and ever-present corporal punishment.
Ryerson was born in the former Charlotteville Township. He was one of six children of United Empire Loyalist Joseph Ryerson and the former Sarah Stickney.
Norfolk Coun. Chris VanPaassen, who represents Charlotteville, has been watching events of recent days with mounting regret. VanPaassen said he fears the pendulum on a complicated historical issue has swung too far at the expense of Ryerson’s reputation and to the detriment of the man’s overall contribution to Ontario’s development.
“I feel all politicians do the best they can with the information they have to work with according to the norms of the time,” VanPaassen said this week. “Fast forward 150 years and I’m sure people will ask why we made the decisions we did. They did the best they could with the information they had and the societal beliefs at the time. You can’t re-write history.”
Prior to Confederation, officials from the Province of Canada – which included Ontario – asked Ryerson for his opinion on aboriginal education given that the British colony was industrializing amidst a wave of European migration. Traditional hunting and fishing grounds were disappearing and there were concerns over how aboriginal communities might support themselves while remaining independent and self-governing.
Ryerson suggested aboriginal communities should be educated in the ways of contemporary agriculture so they might feed themselves while deriving an income. VanPaassen said this was logical because Ontario in the 19th century was an agrarian society whose aboriginal population had a long history of settled agriculture.
Norfolk’s heritage and culture division did not respond to a request for comment on Ryerson’s legacy.
Meantime, there is mounting pressure to erase Ryerson’s namesakes.
Ryerson University is facing calls to change its name.
And last week, a Hamilton school board voted to rename its school named after Ryerson. The name of Brantford’s Ryerson Heights Elementary School, part of the Grand Erie board, is also under review.
Other Ryerson namesakes in Ontario include the Township of Ryerson, near Parry Sound. Streets in Toronto are named after Ryerson. And there is also a Ryerson Street in the Norfolk community of Port Ryerse.
— With files from Monte Sonnenberg and Tristan Hopper