What can we learn from the name change?

Ryerson University has a new name: Metropolitan University of Toronto.

University president Mohamed Lachemi recommended the name from a list compiled by a committee of professors, administrators, students and alumni. The name change process was prompted by the Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win Task Force (Hold On).

The university’s renaming is a welcome step to help reconcile Canada’s long history of settlement, past and present. This signals a desire to redress Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, particularly in educational settings.

The Ryerson name change has the potential to teach important lessons to all of society as we strive for a more equitable future given our inequitable past.

Create a balanced story

Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win focused on the university‘s complex relationship with its namesake, Egerton Ryerson. The racist legacy of his educational policies devastated Indigenous communities — he was a architect for the Ontario Indian Residential Schools.

Archivists rummaged through the archives. Historians have been consulted. Researchers have done research. Knowledge keepers provided wisdom. And in surveying past and present members of the Ryerson community, the task force struck a delicate balance.

The authors detailed the troubling past of Egerton Ryerson. They linked him to his influence in the establishment of Ontario’s residential schools. They even shared his offensive statements about the goals of Indigenous education.

But the authors also highlighted Egerton’s many accomplishments. This included Fundraising for Indigenous Schools and assisting the Crown in seeking confirmation of Mississaugas’ legal title to reserves.

Read more: Not the ‘missing’ anymore: Mourning 215 children found in graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School

After the buried bodies of Indigenous children have been found in former residential schoolsthe statue of Ryerson on campus has become even more harmful, traumatic and triggering for many staff, faculty and students. His name adorning buildings, email signatures and sports teams likely did the same.

In an interview with The Globe and MailPresident Lachemi said the new name reflects the wishes of community members:

“It’s a name that suits us perfectly. We are located in the heart of our country’s largest and most diverse city, so the university represents all that it means to be metropolitan. We are a gathering place for people from all over the world, from all walks of life, with broad and diverse perspectives, lived experiences and aspirations.

Metropolitan University of Toronto should be in use soon, but signage will take time. The blue and yellow color will remain and Ryerson will still appear on official documents until legislation governing the university is changed – likely after the June provincial election.

Recognize institutional inequalities

Many institutions have a dubious past. Some even supported residential school atrocities, such as creating a discourse on assimilation.

We must condemn Egerton Ryerson, but recognize that many Canadians benefit from systems similar to those he helped shape, not just education. During the pandemic, the the wealthiest Canadians prospered. On the other hand, low-wage workers, often women and marginalized people, continued to suffer. The pandemic has accelerated long-lasting trends where seniors, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, marginalized people and Indigenous people felt the most negative effects of income inequality.

But the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and racial reckoning also forced a social reset of sorts, helping to prompt the name change to Ryerson.

Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win captured the sadness that imperils the community of Ryerson. The community has mourned the legacy of a man they never met, but they know all too well the punitive education system he created.

We must fix the public institutions that allow obscene financial and social inequities as well as personal havoc that can potentially reverberate through generations. But first we must recognize our own role in allowing their perpetuation.

Renaming is a start

Although it could have been resisted and there was initial opposition from some groupsRyerson’s renaming shows how foundational institutions like universities can listen to Indigenous peoples and their allies to bring about welcome change.

From there, the name change of Ryerson should not remain a token act. And this feat doesn’t have to mean the battle is over. Instead, a name change means the fight has only just begun.

A protester uses a torch in an attempt to remove the head from the statue of Egerton Ryerson in Toronto on Sunday, June 6, 2021.

Clearing Egerton Ryerson’s name from the institution feels good. It’s similar to remove his statue from university grounds. But improving the worst aspects of the educational policies he helped bring about is better. This includes improving outdated practices.

And Indigenous peoples must help lead this change. Their knowledge and culture must fully inhabit education. Some equitable education policies might include:

Public education has caused unjustifiable suffering. Many educational contexts are governed by punishment, not proactive discipline. They homogenize, dehumanize and constantly and excessively testing.

Renaming public entities begins the process of redressing inequalities – Ryerson is one example, Toronto’s Dundas Street is another — but it cannot end it. Regressive institutional practices must be questioned.

Chronicling past atrocities, honoring those who have been tragically lost, integrating the voices of survivors, and building just institutions is the only way to build a truly inclusive society.

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