Protesters Topple Statue of Egerton Ryerson, Founder of Residential Schools Where Indigenous Kids Were Abused

Students and faculty of Toronto's Ryerson University, many of whom are now calling it "X University," are demanding the school's name be changed. A task force has been set up to address concerns that its name is harmful to the Indigenous community.

A statue of the founder of Canada's residential school system, Egerton Ryerson, located on the campus of the Toronto, Ontario, university bearing his name, was toppled by protesters over the weekend as the country continues to grieve the 215 bodies of indigenous children discovered near the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia last month.

Ryerson University's President Mohamed Lachemi said in a statement after the statue's toppling that it "will not be restored or replaced."

He added that the protests around the college campus over the weekend, which led to the toppling and beheading of the Ryerson statue, saw crowds of more than 1,000 people. "We are relieved that no one was injured in the process," Lachemi said, according to CBC News.

Now, hundreds of professors and faculty members are demanding that Ryerson University undergoes a name change.

"Today, there remains no cover or excuse to turn away from the truth about the namesake of our university," the faculty letter signed by 345 professors, including three associate deans reads, according to CBC News. "Every Indigenous family in this country has been touched by Indian Residential Schools and our namesake's legacy as an architect of the residential school system is the reason we must act now as faculty members at this institution."

Egerton Ryerson, who died in Toronto in 1882, is credited with having established Canada's residential school system.

Ryerson University had previously supported a possible name change, having established the Standing Strong Task Force, also known in Cree as Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win, to reconsider Egerton Ryerson's legacy on campus last year.

"With the statue removed, there may be regrets that the many students, faculty, staff and community members who have worked tirelessly towards its removal were not offered the opportunity to witness the moment it came down," the task force's co-chairs Joanne Dallaire and Catherine Ellis wrote in a statement, according to CBC News.

The controversy surrounding the university's name is not new. The task force had been established in November 2020 after a decade of acknowledgement of Egerton Ryerson's problematic past. Before the protests or discovery of the mass grave near the Kamloops Residential School, the task force had already been on track to deliver its findings by fall 2021 – until which, some students and faculty members had vowed to call the school "X University."

The university had also installed a plaque next to the statue in 2018 explaining the devastating effects of the residential school system, the school said in a statement.

Canada's federal government has also spent much of its recent history acknowledging the atrocities committed against Indigenous children as young as 3 years old who were forced to attend residential schools.

In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology in the House of Commons to the Indigenous community, admitting that the policy of residential schools was "to kill the Indian in the child," based on the idea that "Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal." The Government of Canada had also established a $1.9 billion compensation package to survivors, which marks the largest class action settlement in Canadian history.

More than 100 residential schools had been in operation in Canada between the 1870s and 1990s, and it was largely mandatory for every Indigenous child to attend.

Indigenous children were forced to cut their hair short and wear uniforms, and they were forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing their culture, according to a report by the University of British Columbia's Indigenous Foundations.

Boys and girls were often separated, meaning siblings that attended the same residential school likely never saw one another.

These rules were enforced by nude beatings, scaldings, starvation and various forms of sexual abuse, according to a report by the Union of Ontario Indians. Some of those caught speaking a language other than the official languages, English or French, were punished with needles in their tongues.

"We were never allowed to speak our languages in there," a survivor of residential school Garry Gottfriedson told CBS News. "Because of fear of punishment, so those of us that were little were absolutely terrified."

Many, including those in Canada's leadership, admit that residential schools were a form of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) estimated that more than 4,100 students died in these schools of disease, but the organization says the actual toll could be 6,000 or higher.

"The exact number of children who died at school may never be known, but the death rates for many schools, particularly during times of epidemic or disease, were very high," according to the TRC's Missing Children Project.

The Kamloops Indian Board, or Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, has said in a statement after the discovery of the 215 bodies of indigenous children buried near the Kamloops Residential School that these deaths were likely not counted in the official estimates. 

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