McParland: Renaming Ryerson University to appease the delicate is probably harmless, if pointless

Valid critique of single-minded blinkers:

The only reason I knew anything about Egerton Ryerson, before he ran afoul of the forces of statue reclamation, was because, for a brief period, I attended the Toronto school that took his name.

That was a long time ago. Ryerson was a mere polytechincal institute at the time and no one cared much who it was named after. Given I was to spend time there, I checked out the man whose name was on the building. Turned out he was a key figure in the staid, grey, ultra-respectable clique that ran the Toronto in the early and middle decades of the 19th century. Most of them were rigid, unbending figures, steeped in their self-regard, but Ryerson was an education maven: arguing that education should be mandatory, schools should be free, teachers should be professionally trained, textbooks should include Canadian authors, schools should be run independently and freed of the monopolistic hands of the priests. For that he won wide plaudits and remained a respected and admired figure well into the current century, until history was suddenly revised and he became a reviled character accused of plotting to demean and degrade Canada’s Indigenous people.

His sin was that, approached for advice on a means of educating Aboriginal children, he advocated for teaching in English in boarding schools away from families. While he could hardly be blamed for the horror show the system later became, his presence at the birth of the concept has seen him seized on by revisionist extremists intent on denouncing the dead for failing to adopt 21st century processes in a 19th century world.

The old-timey Ryerson Polytechnical Institute I attended has since grown considerably, sprawling over a network of streets and byways all over central Toronto and proudly re-branding itself as a fully-fledged university. Now it is to have a new name, because any association with Egerton Ryerson is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs for the ultra-woke, easily offended young people who make up the student body or the timid functionaries who populate the administration.

The decision was announced Thursday after approval by the university’s board of governors, based on the recommendations of a report commissioned last November. In addition to designating Ryerson an unperson, the board agreed the university “will not reinstall, restore or replace” a statue that had been pulled down and disfigured, and will issue “an open call for proposals for the rehoming of the remaining pieces … to promote educational initiatives.” Anyone looking for an extra kneecap or a spare left hand as a conversation piece or garden ornament should presumably apply at the bursar’s office.

Ceremonies to promote “healing and closure” will be held at the spot the statue once occupied. Board members agreed something will also have to be done about “Eggy,” a school mascot that will obviously no longer do unless the faculty redirects its interests towards the reproductive habits of chickens.

If a new name makes the delicate daisies at Ryerson happy it seems kind of harmless. And maybe it’s just as well. Parts of the university border on Dundas Street, a main thoroughfare christened after another long-dead figure who got himself mixed up with the wrong side of history. Since the city had already decided to rename the offending stretches of pavement, the university was going to have to order up new letterhead anyway, so why not go for the full magillah? Next on the list could be Yonge St., which also skirts the campus and honours a figure far more objectionable than either Dundas or Ryerson, but who has somehow escaped the roving hordes of Puritans now dictating the acceptable limits of nomenclature to a crushed and cowering city. By this time next year whole swaths of the city core could find itself operating under new identities, confusing the tourists and playing havoc with street maps.

It’s possible trouble still lies ahead, however. Among findings in the task force report was a potentially troubling recommendation that some recognition of Ryerson’s existence be allowed to continue. Specifically, “the establishment of a physical and interactive display that provides comprehensive and accessible information about the legacy of Egerton Ryerson and the period in which he was commemorated by the university,” and  “the creation of a website that disseminates the Task Force’s historical research findings about Egerton Ryerson’s life and legacy.”

Given that the man was hardly the ogre imagined by his statue-bashing accusers, and bears much credit for the early development of an advanced education system in what was then a remote and underpopulated province, it’s possible an honest assessment of his life won’t be as dark and discreditable as today’s student body obviously hopes.

What happens then? Will they tear down the display and banish the web site? Probably. Truth can never be allowed to spoil the prejudices of historical ignorance. Especially at an institution of higher education.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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