Historical figures move in and out of favour as the public’s mood rides the wild winds of change through the years. Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882), famed Methodist founder of the Ontario public school system, is one such figure. In my history of education doctoral studies at UBC in the early 1980s, Ryerson was certainly the centre of attention. I still have my tattered old notebook from that time – it is fascinating now to review my notes in our time when the monument of the former hero of public schooling was toppled on Gould Street in Toronto in June 2021.
One might wonder why. Well, he has been blamed for instigating residential schools: these schools (only becoming federal government policy in 1883) are accused of being nothing-less than vile instruments of cultural genocide. Founded in 1948, Ryerson University in Toronto has gone so far as to call for the change of their university’s name. I will put this claim under careful scrutiny, drawing from the essays of Ronald Stagg and Patrice Dutil, “The imbecile attack on Egerton Ryerson,” The Dorchester Review, August 12, 2021 and Donald B. Smith, “Egerton Ryerson and the Mississauga, 1826 to 1856, an appeal for further study,” Ontario History, vol. 113 (2), Fall 2021, Lynn McDonald’s “Letter to the president of Ryerson University” and Smith’s biography of Peter Jones (Sacred Feathers: the Reverend Peter Jones [Kahkewaquonaby], 1987).
In the 1970s and 1980s educational history underwent a renaissance. The upheavals of the 1960s had precipitated three significant historiographic developments: writing the oppressed and voiceless back into historical narrative, situating the school in the context of social development and ideological contestation as well as using social scientific and Marxian modes of interpretation. It was heady stuff for a new doctoral student: the school was now thrown into the political, economic, cultural and religious upheavals of an insecure and anxiety-ridden colonial Upper Canada in the mid-nineteenth century. And Egerton Ryerson was placed under the historian’s searchlight.
The stodgy old narrative history of Charles Phillips (The development of education in Canada , was framed within the paradigm of the dark pre-Ryerson days and the enlightened era of the Methodist founder. Phillips exalted Ryerson to the status of mythic hero. He created a centralized public educational system that was the engine of progress and democracy. But it did not take long for mythic hero to be brought down to earth and debunked. Phillips was accused by the new educational historians for isolating the school from the class, race and gender dynamics of colonial society. One of the most powerful of the “radical revisionist” critics, Michael Katz (The irony of school reform ), worked within the trope of irony and proclaimed that schools were instruments of social control. They were not agents of progress. In fact, many eminent Canadian educational historians (like Susan Houston, J.D. Wilson, Alison Prentice, Neil McDonald, Bruce Curtis, Robert Gidney and Douglas Lawr.) considered Ryerson a conservative who urged his compatriots to build a coherent public educational system to reproduce the class hierarchy of Upper Canada and impose schools on local communities.
That would mean, fundamentally, that middle class values and attitudes would be imposed on the lower orders. In other words, the “real” role of the school in Upper Canada was to subdue, civilize and impose the virtues of cleanliness, obedience, industry, discipline and control. Class harmony was the goal. However, this reading of Ryerson’s alleged intentions is undermined by a lack of evidence that middle class values were actually imposed on unwilling victims. The school remains a black box; the scholarly digging necessary to provide evidence absent.
Ryerson defined education in now classic fashion: “By education, I mean not the mere acquisition of certain arts, or of certain branches of knowledge, but that instruction and discipline which qualify and dispose the subject of it for their appropriate duties and employment of life, as Christians, as persons of business, and also as members of the civil community in which they live.” Ryerson’s world-view is marinated in his Methodist faith. Education was inextricably linked to Christian citizenship. With a Christian moral foundation, the school could nurture “good men” who were fit for usefulness to that particular society, develop talents and dispositions in such a way as to be serviceable to institutions and interests of the community. Ryerson knew well that the socializing task of the common schools had great work to accomplish, given the precarious nature of the colony’s future, labour strife and divisive sectarianism of Upper Canada in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Let alone continuous threats from a US invasion and the uncertainties of British governance.
Ryerson’s five educational principles are worth considering carefully. First, the principle of universality: particularly in respect to the poorest classes.” For Ryerson, education was a divine birthright. Second, a sound education had to be practical. It was the vehicle for preparing the student for a life of virtue, usefulness and happiness. His third principle is religious and moral: Ryerson placed Christianity and its morals at the base of his system of education. The fourth principle intended that the different branches of knowledge (grammar, etc.) would foster growth in wisdom and knowledge. And the fifth principle adopted the developmental notion of the cultivation of intellectual and physical powers in order to promote earthly happiness and assist in achieving happiness in the hereafter. Egerton Ryerson, this fierce advocate of common schooling for all children, cannot be fit easily into the categories of “class collaborationist” or “conservative.”
He fought hard against establishing the Church of England as the state church of Upper Canada. And this spirit of egalitarianism and openness to including the labour classes and the poor in the public schools broke with the elitism of some Anglican thinkers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He believed that “educated citizens” were needed in Upper Canada: the deep-rooted political tendency of British rulers was disdainful of deliberative forms of democracy. Although Ryerson rejected the more radical, violent actions of men like Robert Gourlay, he did not fear the ordinary farmer or labourer’s views on how the world ought to be ordered. But it is true that Ryerson’s Christian sensitivity tipped him toward affirming that society ought to be harmonious, and this required a moral elite who could attend to the common good. He was not in cahoots with merchants, industrialists and financiers.
It really isn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that workers would evolve something akin to a “class consciousness.” Ryerson’s educational philosophy accentuated the need for everyone, merchant and labouring class, to find their place in creating the good society. It makes sense to me that he feared that Upper Canada would disintegrate into warring ethnicities, classes and religions. Schools, for him, were the prime sources for the building of social capital and fostering social solidarity.
Stagg and Dutil are correct to label Ryerson “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 freshly appointed Ryerson drafted the epochal Common School Act in 1846 that established universal access to schooling in Ontario.
The above-facts are well-known. What is scarcely known about Ryerson is that he was a missionary to the Mississaugas of Credit River in 1826-1827. This fact (which is of immense consequence to our argument) was scarcely mentioned in my educational history days. However, now that Ryerson has come under attack as responsible for the egregious residential schools of the twentieth century, leading Ryerson University professors to demand that their university change its name, it is imperative that we examine this claim carefully, very carefully. Like CSI Vegas’ Dr. Gil Grissom, we must “follow the evidence.”
Let us clear away several brambles on our road to understanding Ryerson and the question of Indigenous schooling. First, Ryerson did not invent the residential school. This form of schooling was British colonial policy – “long before Ryerson’s report of 1847” (McDonald) – and the 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to New France tried unsuccessfully to establish boarding schools. Failing, they shifted their pedagogical program to adult Native people. Second, an Indigenous Methodist Christian leader like Peter Jones (born of an Ojibwe mother and Welsh father in 1802 and died in 1856) called for residential schools for his Ojibwe people (as did other chiefs). He petitioned the British government and his own colonial officials in Upper Canada with four concerns: full Indian civil and land rights, full financial reporting in Indian trust funds, and educational reform.
Third, we should not underestimate the nature of the historical catastrophe that descended upon Indigenous peoples. The hunting, gathering and fishing tribal societies were undermined as the economic base of these societies was destroyed and their land encroached upon with impunity. Diseases like small pox and measles devastated many communities. So much so that Peter Jones lamented that the “doom of the redman is to fall and gradually disappear, like the mighty wilderness, before the axe of the European settler. Historians must come to terms with the options available to Indigenous peoples as they experienced their nakba (Arabic for disaster). What options faced them as they navigated through such wreckage? Creating the “right kind” of schooling was surely one such choice.
Smith launches his recent study of Ryerson by declaring boldly that: “Egerton Ryerson was not a monster; but rather, in the 1820s to the 1830s, a strong friend Indigenous friend of the Anishinaabeg on the north shore of Lake Ontario.” In the 1820s the young Ryerson, fluent in Ojibwe (and French and German), “stepped forward to support an Indigenous community in crisis.” The Credit Mississauga hunters and fishers had lost 60% of their land; their numbers decreased dramatically from 500 to 200 in the mid-1820s.
The contagious pandemics of smallpox and measles had decimated the community (and wars fought on their treaty land by Britain and the US war of 1812 added to the chaos and suffering). And the settlers “invaded their hunting grounds, encroached upon their fisheries, cut timber on their forested reserve land.” Ryerson was not out there swinging an axe. And unlike the majority of white settlers was not ignorant or disrespectful of Indigenous people. Asked about the future of the First Nations, the whites said, “There is none.”
Egerton Ryerson became “fast friends” with Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby)—who was a powerful and determined representative of Indigenous resistance and agency. Jones and his English wife Eliza even stayed in his home in the last days before he died. Between 1826 and 1827 Ryerson lived with the Credit Mississauga. While he believed that First Nations should become the equal of the settlers, he shared the fundamental belief in nearly all Euro-Canadian history that the Indigenous peoples “would eventually enter the mainline Euro-Canadian world.” But he believed that Euro-Canadians “failed to understand the dilemma the Mississauga faced when they accepted certain aspects of another culture but at the same time wished to retain their own.” Arriving at the Credit Mission on the 16th of September 1826, Ryerson was received affectionately, removing in his own words “all the strangeness of national feeling, and enabled me to embrace them as brethren, and love them as mine own people.”
Many Mississauga Ojibwe embraced Methodist Christianity – Peter Jones became a leading indigenous missionary to his own people, translated parts of the Bible into Ojibwe and laboured through various troubles to preach these new Christian beliefs. A careful observer of the interplay between traditional Ojibwe belief systems and Christianity, Smith states: “Indigenous parents supported and encouraged their children to attend the Methodists’ bilingual schools to acquire the competence and self-assurance to deal in English with the newcomers. Change came about in the Mississauga due to their own initiatives and under their own leaders.” The first Methodist church worker to live with the Credit Mississauga, Ryerson “joined them in their fight to secure a title deed to their reserve at the mouth of the Credit River, twenty kilo-metres west of York (as Toronto was known until 1834).”
Significantly for our story, Ryerson worked to safeguard their land base. He “supported their transition to Euro-Canadian farming, by helping them build a model agricultural village. He worked to secure from the Upper Canadian legislature the Mississaugas’ exclusive right to their salmon fishery. He set up a school in which the children were taught Ojibwe and English.” The Mississauga desired to “remain a distinct people, retain their language, and continue to be self-governing. With a knowledge of English and a growing awareness in the late 1820s and 1830s of British law Mississauga leaders now advanced Indigenous Title claims to many sites in their traditional territory at the western end of Lake Ontario and on the northeastern share of Lake Erie.” Ryerson remained their ally for over a decade after he left the Credit Mission. Importantly, during his 1836/7 trip to England Egerton “worked energetically to secure the Colonial Office’s protection of the Anishinaabeg’s remaining land base in Upper Canada.” These are not the actions of a man who wanted to erase Indigenous culture.
Ryerson was appointed Superintendent of Education for Canada West in 1843. Here, we can only touch down lightly on key events in the tumultuous early years of establishing a public school system in a colonial frontier society. In 1847 the Indian Department of the Union of the Canadas asked Ryerson to write a short report on Indigenous schooling. Smith is at great pain to inform us that Ryerson’s “direct connection with the topic ended with the submission of his approximately 3,000-word letter.” Weighed down by massive responsibilities as a harried senior bureaucrat, “Ryerson recommended agricultural training schools, or Industrial Schools as he called them, to teach young men the most up-to-date European-style agriculture. Although unstated in his 1847 letter he possibly had prior knowledge of the well-regarded manual labour school established eight years earlier at the Methodist Shawnee school in the United States, built with church funds and substantial federal government aid, was regarded as a progressive venture, one worthy of imitation.”
What many Canadians do not understand is that an Ojibwe leader such as Peter Jones was determined to “see manual labour schools established in Canada West, schools run by Indigenous people themselves as administrators and teachers.” Clearly, Jones (and Ryerson) knew that to compete, “the Indians needed to know basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to have a fund of general knowledge about the larger society. Once they had become self-reliant, they could protect their tiny reserves from outsiders’ intrusions, defend the unsurrendered lands to the north and the west, and also participate in the settler’s world around them” (Smith, 1987, p. 193). In other words, Jones and other Anishinaabeg leaders “supported the idea of a residential school, not as a means of working to erase their separate identity, but rather as a defence tactic to strengthen it.”
In a word, they needed formal schools to enable them to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and sensibilities to defend their cultures and engage the white settler society as equals. It would be up to Indigenous leaders to decide if a residential form of schooling would be appropriate for their youth. Ryerson’s advocacy of training males to be “industrial farmers” makes sense in pre-industrial Canada where farming was the driver of the economy. He thought the churches would run the residential schools; the government would play a supervisory role. Ryerson, Smith states, “worked for the economic self-sufficiency of the Anishinaabeg.”
Although Ryerson’s prose sounds like classic mid-nineteenth century colonialism when he asserts that the Indians (like everyone) required religious instruction and sentiment to be industrious, his dream was to “train up the pupils to habits of order and business, that will render them objects of desire by proprietors, as overseers of farms, should they not settle on farms of their own […]. It would be a gratifying result to see graduates of our Indian industrial schools become overseers of some of the largest farms in Canada, nor will it be less gratifying to see them industrious and prosperous farmers on their own account.”
But Ryerson’s vision was not realized. The residential school system put in place after Ryerson’s death was structured to achieve dependency not independence. Smith thinks that by the end of the nineteenth century the prevalent idea was the “complete reversal of Egerton Ryerson’s 1847 suggestions.” A rupture in white thought occurred roughly in the 1860s around the time of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of species. Now the “Canadian Indian policy’s central dynamic became the relentless campaign to place the Indigenous peoples, without consultation, in the settler society. It drastically reduced the limited degree of Indigenous self-government still permitted.” However, the Indigenous people had no intention of disappearing into the dominant white society.
I affirm Donald Smith’s declaration that: “Any attempt to portray Egerton Ryerson as anti-Indigenous should send an alarm. As should the frequently advanced opinion that casts him as one of the ‘architects’ of the oppressive, non-Indigenous controlled Indian residential schools of the late nineteenth century and beyond….They bore little resemblance to the boarding schools called for by First Nations’ leaders at the 1846 Council with the Indigenous Peoples in Orillia: the system they received proved entirely different from what they had requested.” Ryerson University ought to reconsider erasing Ryerson’s name. Their original choice was a good one after all.