June 3rd, 2021 - Alex Usher
Let’s talk about Ryerson and McGill.

In brief: McGill University is named after James McGill, a Montreal fur-trader and farmer. He was not a particularly notable figure in life, but after his death in 1813 he left a reasonably large bequest, including most of the land on which the downtown campus now sits, to start a college. He also over the course of his life owned five slaves (three Black, two Indigenous).

In brief: Ryerson University is named for Egerton Ryerson. Canada’s system of free, public education owes much to him, as does the notion of a depoliticized public service.  No fewer than three modern-day Ontario universities (Guelph, OCAD U and Ryerson itself) can trace their lineage to his initiatives, as can the Royal Ontario Museum. But he also contributed to the creation of the Residential School System in Canada; not in a particularly direct way, but he contributed (if you want a short, balanced account of exactly how big this contribution was, I recommend this 5-page statement issued by Ryerson University’s Aboriginal Education Council from 2010). The unearthing of 215 bodies of children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School starkly remind us that these institutions were not so much places of learning as they were concentration camps, key institutional pieces in the Canadian state’s assault on Indigenous peoples and cultures.

Both James McGill and Egerton Ryerson have a university named after them. At each institution, there is a statue of the man in question. The question is whether both the statues and the names should continue. And both are difficult questions, because they involve a mix of judgements both about the two men as individuals, and about the purpose of statuary and of institutional names.

The statuary issue is easier. Statuary is public art and public art, if it celebrates individuals, should celebrate individuals who society believes are worthy of celebration. That will, naturally, change over time. So, the idea that public statuary, once erected, can never change is as ridiculous as is the idea that by doing so we are “losing a part of our history” (if we are relying on public art rather than books to learn about history we are in a lot of trouble). The question really for McGill and Ryerson is: do we really wish to celebrate them?

For McGill, the answer is clearly no. In life, James McGill made few contributions of note to public life. He was rich and gave (after his death) productively, that’s it. There isn’t even the excuse at McGill that the statue of the founder is some kind of integral piece of institutional culture, much beloved by alumni, etc, because it only went up twenty-five years ago (everybody think about that: McGill thought it unproblematic to put up a statue of a slave-owner in 1996). They should take the damn thing down.

Ryerson is trickier. His legacy includes a lot of things of which Canadians are justly proud and his role in the creation of residential schools was less consequential than many of his casual critics allege (again, read the Ryerson AEC statement above – it’s good). If it were just up to settlers, you would probably say “leave it up and put up a plaque next to it explaining residential school” (which, in fact, was done a few years ago). 

But it isn’t just up to settlers. That’s the point of reconciliation. And in any case, I think that we as a country are approaching the point in our evolving understanding of Residential Schools and the evil they represent, that it’s time to stop commemorating anyone even remotely involved with it.  It’s not so much that it’s a price worth paying for reconciliation, but more that it isn’t even really a price at all.

The bigger question is: does the same logic hold for institutional names? Several Ryerson staff and students are now referring to their institution publicly as X University, as a way of signalling that they want a different moniker. To my knowledge, no one is yet doing that at McGill, but my guess is that will become a thing if Ryerson goes that route (a propos of this, Washington and Lee University in Virginia is deciding on a name change this month).  Thus, it’s worth considering the two cases together.

Unlike a statue, a university is in a sense a living thing. It is a community which builds and discovers and creates things and over time the legacy it creates is in a sense independent of the person whose name it bears. It helps to think of "McGill" as the 200 year-old child of James McGill, with a record of its own that is independent of James McGill, its father.  From this perspective, the case for a name change is not very persuasive. Its long history of learning and discovery stands on its own, independent of whatever opprobrium might attach itself to the man who originally bore the name. Ryerson might be a younger school, with less of a record of achievement, but probably stands in the same position (especially since Egerton Ryerson's personal legacy contains more positives than James McGill's)

The question at Ryerson, really, is whether we have got to the point where we all-settlers and Indigenous peoples alike-believe that the evil done in Canada's name through Residential Schools is so great that it requires us to expunge from public nomenclature. I'm not convinced that's the case; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn't, in its recommendations on commemoration, prioritize re-naming at all. Its emphasis was rather on creating monuments commemorating survivors and their children in cities across the country. But maybe it's precisely because Canada has been so slow to address the TRC recommendations that we are seeing calls for more drastic action in the way we choose to honour and remember the past. 

Remember the 215.