HDSB Trustees seem to have not done their homework when they decided to rename Ryerson Public School

background graphic redBy Pepper Parr

June 24th, 2021



The focus on the issue of a statue of Egerton Ryerson started in Toronto when the city proposed to create 34 neighbourhoods for administrative reasons, labeling one of them as “Ryerson” to capture the downtown area mainly occupied by the University campus that bears his name. The initiative rebooted the demand to remove Ryerson’s statue on Gould Street and to change the name of the university dedicated to his memory.

At about the same time members of the Halton District School Board (HDSB) began to take an interest in how the Ryerson name was used.

The HDSB has a Superintendent Etough who pays attention to matters of equity and diversity. His view was that the public did not fully understand how traumatic the issue is for the Indigenous community.

Ryerson public school

An elementary school in a quiet neighbourhood with fully matured trees and a city park next door. This is a community where children can safely walk to school.

Through a process that could have been a little clearer, the trustees made the decision that the name on a school on Woodview, Ryerson PS, was no longer acceptable and decided to remove the name and go through a Board process in place to name schools.

At a Board meeting on June 16th, there were trustees who wanted the name removed immediately. Director of Education Stuart Miller explained that the name could not be removed until there was a new name in place that had the necessary input from the community.

Given that the community is going into summer and schools are closed the Director advised the trustees to wait until the fall and begin the process then when parents are around and not on vacation.

That led to the trustees agreeing that the re-naming process was to be completed no later than November 30th.

fallon - parent

Fallon Melander, the Indigenous mother was formally asked the HDSB to change he name of Ryerson PS

During the webcast of the Board meeting we heard Fallon Melander, a parent with children who attend Ryerson, explained why she wanted to see the name removed from the school.

As I listened to the debate, staff comments and what the trustees had to say I began to wonder who had done the research that led to the trustees deciding that the Ryerson name should be removed from the school.

shuttleworth 2

Trustee Margo Shuttleworth

I was told by Trustee Margo Shuttleworth that she had done the research.  Ms Shuttleworth has been trained in jurisprudence at a University on Scotland – she is not an historian nor does she have any known expertise on the history of education in Ontario.

I asked where that research was deposited and could we have access to it.

We made this request because what we were hearing during the meeting differed significantly from what had been published else where by Ron Stagg and Patrice Dutil.

We also asked Trustee Shuttleworth for a copy of her remarks, which were worth putting on the public record, and for the delegation made by Fallon Melander,the parent who asked formally that the name be changed.

Shuttle offered both documents. They have yet to arrive – we did send a second request.

The Gazette has had problems with Shuttleworth in the past; notably in the 2014 election when she came up with the idea of putting out a pledge that she would do her job if she was elected as the trustee for ward 4. She didn’t get elected in 2014 but she did get elected in 2018. There is a link to that story below.

Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882), the Methodist minister who has long been celebrated as the founder of the Ontario public school system, stands accused of creating a residential school system designed to stamp out Indigenous culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In an article in another national newspaper Ron Stagg, professor of history and Patrice Dutil professor of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University set out a very factual story which we set out below.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated the the history of the role Ryerson played in the formation of schools for Indigenous youth,  its final report made no such claim. It did not seem to matter: a small but nameless constituency still argues that Ryerson was the predecessor to federal politicians who launched new residential schools in 1883, and should therefore be erased from public memory. Note that Ryerson died in 1882

Ryerson is being misjudged. He was not a racist and he did not discriminate against Indigenous people. It was the exact opposite! As a young man he was appointed to the Credit mission, home of the Mississaugas. He learned their language, worked in the fields with the people of the settlement and became a life-long friend of future chief Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), known in English as Peter Jones.

In fact, it was in recognition of his services to the Mississauga, that Ryerson was adopted and given the name of a recently deceased chief, “Cheechock” or “Chechalk.”

After he left the Credit mission, Ryerson kept in touch with Peter Jones. In the 1830s he assisted the Mississaugas, whose land was confiscated by colonial authorities, by approaching Queen Victoria personally through back channels. He also advanced the careers of a number of talented Indigenous individuals. When Peter Jones was gravely ill at the end of his life, he stayed in the comfortable home of his old friend Ryerson in Toronto. Ryerson was a friend of Indigenous people.

It is also wrong to blame Egerton Ryerson for creating residential schools. It was Peter Jones, working with another prominent Methodist, who argued that the government should fund schools to educate Indigenous men in the new techniques in agriculture, so that they might survive in a colony where land to hunt and fish freely was rapidly disappearing. By 1842, the authorities accepted the concept, as a way to put First Nations on farms and to eliminate the expense of annual treaty payments, not as a way to assimilate them.

In 1846, government agents met with thirty chiefs, representing most of the First Nations in what is now southern Ontario. After some discussion, almost all the leaders agreed that such schools were necessary, and many even agreed to use part of their treaty payments to help support the schools. A year later, the government approached Ryerson, an acknowledged expert on education, and asked him to provide a curriculum for schools that would train Indigenous people for a settled life.

Ryerson H&S

Egerton Ryerson did not do what many think he did do. Given the social values that prevailed when he was alive he was one of the best friends the the Indigenous community had.

Ryerson was fully in agreement with the plan because he worried that Indigenous communities would be destroyed unless they changed their economic life. He delivered general suggestions for a curriculum — nothing else — that were typical of his day. It was patronizing, as it was based on Euro-Canadian models, but it had the support of most of the Indigenous leaders.

Ryerson statue

The Ryerson statue was covered in paint before it was toppled and destroyed.

Ryerson participated precisely because he saw education as the best instrument to protect First Nations from advancing settlement.

Two schools were established. They would be supervised by the government, and run by the Methodists, just like most of the on-reserve schools. They differed markedly from later residential schools, however. Teaching was done by teachers trained for the regular school system, not by the clergy, and children could speak their own language.

Attendance was voluntary. Religion was a subject in the curriculum, not a tool of forced conversion and assimilation.

As a devout Christian, Ryerson would have been horrified by the abuses and cruelties later perpetrated on Indigenous children by residential schools.

The schools were failures, mainly because of government refusal to adequately fund the project. But in this small aspect of his career Egerton Ryerson demonstrated his uniquely humane instincts of generosity and recognition of minorities.

This was the same man who boldly championed schools for Catholics and for French-Canadians.

The HDSB has not fully informed itself and appears to have let emotions get in the way of the facts.  What this country has done to the Indigenous community is shameful and it is vital that we make amends.  The people who want to focus on a name change can better serve the members of the First Nation by ensuring that every child buried in unmarked graves is disinterred and buried properly with dignity and grace.

While we are at it can we ensure that these people have potable water running into their homes and that the housing they have is not sub-standard.

The Halton District School Board has two members who hold doctorates – for them to allow such a shoddy approach to the collection of the facts is disappointing and disturbing.

If this is the best a Board that sets out educational policy for the children in the Region can do we are indeed a society in serious decline.

We can do better – hopefully during the public consultations on a name change the public will point out where the Board has fallen short.

Related news story

The pledge

Salt with Pepper is the musings, reflections and opinions of the publisher of the Burlington Gazette, an online newspaper that was formed in 2010 and is a member of the National Newsmedia Council.


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14 comments to HDSB Trustees seem to have not done their homework when they decided to rename Ryerson Public School

  • Blair Smith

    Another thing to keep in mind, particularly if she is successful in her bid for the nomination as the Provincial Liberal candidate for Burlington, is that Ms. Grebenc, Chair of the HDSB Trustees, is part of this “rush to judgement” and should be asked to explain her decision. I believe that we are still waiting for Ms. Shuttleworth’s “research” (I strongly suspect that it is being compiled as we speak) and Ms. Melander’s delegation. Both should be public documents, I believe.

  • perryb

    regrettably, Ryerson is toast. There is ample evidence, open to dispute, that Ryerson did many good things with the best of intentions. He was long dead before others twisted the process as we now are reckoning with. But the twitter mob is not inclined to waste time with thought or subtlety, since it is easier to tear down a statue and cancel a defenseless victim and move on to find the next one. We, as the descendants and inheritors of the nineteenth century, have much hard work to do to solve the problems of today, and attempts to cancel the past do not help in any way.

  • Basil Birdie

    Shameful article that does not provide a link to the source newspaper for the quote among other problems. The point also stands that many Indigenous people view Ryerson as a figurehead for the residential schooling system, it is not destroying history to help rehabilitate our relationship with Indigenous peoples by making small rather insignificant changes to the lives those who did not have to suffer through that system.

  • Fred Crockett

    How many people in Burlington know who their School Trustee may be, or even care? This is another example of why we should pay attention. Until this, the only controversial issue was the closure of Bateman and Pearson, when with only one exception, they all caved to the demands of the administration. I look forward to Ms. Shuttleworth demonstrating the objectivity and diligence of her disciplined research.

  • Blair Smith

    Superb article Pepper. I look forward to an opportunity to review Ms. Shuttleworth’s very divergent research. I believe that a statement from the HDSB explaining their current position is also in order.

  • Penny Hersh

    Once again” Rush to Judgement” without checking the facts.

    So much simpler to jump on the bandwagon and do little to make a true difference. Tearing down statues, and trying to hide history is one way of dealing with the horrific injustice that took place. Making a difference is another.

    True reconciliation would be to improve the conditions of those living today and improving the lives of future generations. Money should be spent to provide clean water, better education, and health care to the indigenous communities of today, while recognizing that things happened in the past that greatly impacted their lives..

    Did anyone from the School Board fully investigate what Mr Ryerson is accused of? Obviously not.

    The School Board that is supposed to provide the standard of education for our children fails to meet its obligation of finding out the truth.

    It will be interesting to see if the School Board and the City of Burlington who also decided to look into changing the name of Ryerson Park are big enough to admit they made a mistake.

  • Phillip Wooster

    Excellent, well-written article, Pepper, that sets out a factual and more historically accurate account of Egerton Ryerson. I wonder if the lynch mob that were so quick to condemn him will take a second look at this man’s legacy–will they prove big enough to do that?

  • Hans Jacobs

    Thank you for that Pepper. Well done.

  • Steve Holman

    Facts don’t matter when you are pushing the marxist imperative of destruction of all current institutions. Only group think matters. This is just the beginning