It was almost half a century ago that Waterloo Lutheran University decided to change its name to de-emphasize its religious ties. But the university presumably wanted to keep its well-known abbreviation and honour a former Canadian prime minister at the same time.
Thus, Wilfrid Laurier University was born in November 1973. It’s been called that ever since.
It occurs to me that that could be the magic formula to get Ryerson University out of its current public-relations nightmare.
There have been few issues more controversial in Ontario over the past several months than what’s been brewing at Ryerson, so much so that many students, faculty, and people affiliated with the school have taken to calling it X University. They simply can’t bring themselves to utter the name of someone who for years was seen as a champion of public education but who now is understood to have been one of the architects of the residential-school system.
The issue came to a boiling point on June 6, when a handful of protesters toppled the statue of Egerton Ryerson on the university’s downtown Toronto campus. Police say they’re investigating the act of vandalism, but the university’s president, Mohamed Lachemi, seems content to let the issue go away, saying that the statue will “not be restored or replaced.”
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A special committee called the Standing Strong Task Force was appointed last November by Lachemi to consider what to do about the statue. That discussion is obviously now moot, but the committee’s other mission is very much alive: what to do about the university’s name. Its report is due in September.
“My advice is, listen to the people regarding the renaming of the university,” Sarah Singh, deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, tells me. “That name retraumatizes people.”
The discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous schoolchildren in Kamloops, British Columbia — followed by another, similar discovery in Marieval, Saskatchewan — has heightened awareness of the historical figures related to those schools. Singh, who’d been doing her PhD at Ryerson before getting elected as the MPP for Brampton Centre in 2018, calls the Kamloops discovery “a collective awakening.”
The city of Kingston just took down Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue from a place of prominence in a public park. Protestors covered another statue of Sir John A., in downtown Hamilton’s Gore Park, with black wrapping and red binding. And yet another statue of our first prime minister, this one on the south lawn at Queen’s Park, has been covered in cladding for many weeks now.
Ryerson’s administration has a very tough call to make. It can gamble that, with its namesake’s statue torn down, protesters will feel they’ve achieved a victory, and the issue will just subside. Maybe a name change won’t be necessary.
But if the administration guesses wrong, if this is just the beginning, rather than the end, of the controversy over the Ryerson name, then it has an opportunity to lead the way in transforming how the public sees the institution. After all, the number of Indigenous faculty and students at Ryerson is increasing, and, from what I hear, they and others are determined not to let the issue disappear.
It was two and a half months ago that the university renamed its law school after Canada’s first Black MP and cabinet minister, Lincoln Alexander. Ryerson received a ton of positive publicity after that move.
What if Ryerson took a page out of WLU’s playbook? Changing the iconic blue, yellow, and white RU-logo signs all over campus would no doubt cost millions of dollars. But what if the RU could stay, except that the “R” would stand for something else? What if the “R” were changed from “Ryerson” to “Reconciliation?”
Is there a more powerful word when it comes to Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people than “reconciliation?” If the university led the move to change its name to Reconciliation University, rather than getting reluctantly dragged into a name change, wouldn’t that speak volumes about its commitment to improving matters on Canada’s most shameful file?
I’ve talked to several people affiliated with Ryerson about this issue over the past week. All of them like the name Reconciliation University.
I also spoke to Sol Mamakwa, a residential-school survivor and Ontario’s only Indigenous MPP. His take? “My first reaction is usually what I go with, and my first reaction is: that’s cool.”
The office of Ontario’s minister for colleges and universities, Jill Dunlop — who assumed her new responsibilities in last Friday’s cabinet shuffle — confirmed that if RU wants to officially change its name, Queen’s Park will have to sign off on it with an amendment to the Ryerson University Act. However, the school could rebrand itself while retaining its original, legal name — just as Ontario Tech University and Western University did.
Of course, there have been attempts to defend Egerton Ryerson’s record: he did, after all, help create a free and mandatory public-school system in what would later become Ontario and establish a forerunner of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Still, this may be one of those instances where what matters most is doing what feels like the right thing for this moment in time.
This week on The Agenda, I asked Margaret Atwood what she thought of the current situation.
“I’ve watched a lot of regimes fall, and one thing that happens is that statues come down,” she said, listing Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. “The people want to rewrite history.”
“But we haven’t had a regime change here,” I pointed out.
“It’s not an official regime change, but it’s a regime change,” Atwood countered. “It’s a new wave of opinion coming in.”
From Ryerson to Reconciliation? It could be the start of something big.