This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
By Ken Coates, June 6, 2022
With the decision to rename itself Toronto Metropolitan University, the former Ryerson University — known briefly as “University X” — fumbled the opportunity to use public criticism of Egerton Ryerson as a learning opportunity, instead bowing to the passionate protests of activists who believe that condemning a handful of historical figures is one way to address generations of discrimination and paternalism.
Attacking the reputation of Ryerson, one of the most effective educational reformers in Canadian history, requires a narrow reading of his career. Regardless, he is now a dead letter in Canadian public life, and efforts to expunge his name from schools, monuments and other public facilities will no doubt continue apace.
The number one target in the country is now Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald — like Ryerson, singled out for his role in Indigenous residential schools. Across the country, statues in Macdonald’s honour have been removed or doused in red paint, and public bodies are having earnest discussions about removing his name from schools and other facilities.
There is nothing wrong with calling out or re-examining the public memory of historical figures for their actions. However, reading history reductively, losing sight of context, and misreading personal responsibility do not help us to understand the past.
Right now, for good reason, the country is focused on a specific policy — residential schools — with the belief that by removing the tributes to the architects of the school movement we can turn a page. This approach is seriously misguided.
Residential school education was horrific, its multi-generational negative effects still not fully understood. A system purportedly designed to provide personal opportunity to Indigenous students was instead used to attack Indigenous cultures, undermine centuries-old languages, destroy Indigenous families, and assimilate Aboriginal peoples. Dealing with the long-term impact of the residential schools has rightly become a national priority.
We must, however, remember that the residential school concept was not foisted on an unwilling nation by its government. Virtually all non-Indigenous Canadians of that time, led by the Christian churches and supported by non-Indigenous advocates for Indigenous peoples, favoured residential schools. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, many non-Indigenous Canadians still defended the schools as clearly being a “good thing” and a sign of the benevolent state.
Most Canadians did not know — or did not want to know — what happened in the schools. They neither expected nor countenanced the violence and brutality, but encouraged teachers and principals to undermine Indigenous language and culture, believing this was in Indigenous people’s best interests.
In today’s efforts to assign accountability for wrongs of the past, the tendency to focus on individuals — whatever their roles in establishing the institutions — simply misses the point. It was racism and a nationwide sense of cultural superiority that backstopped all of Canada’s aggressive actions against Indigenous peoples. If dismantling a statue or renaming a school (or university) serves some, it also deflects attention from where responsibility properly rests: with society at large.
Criticizing early promoters of residential schools misses the historical mark.
With Ryerson’s name now removed from a campus, and Macdonald’s image being assailed across Canada, where next? There are thousands of targets, including the political leaders, government and church officials, and public supporters who expanded the residential school system, including its rapid acceleration after the Second World War.
Let’s consider two potential targets, modern-era political leaders who espoused simple ideas of potentially destructive impact on Indigenous peoples. They wanted to eliminate the Indian Act and Indian status, break up the reserves, abandon treaties, and integrate Indigenous peoples into the Canadian mainstream. Their stated goal sounded honourable to some — producing “real” equality among all Canadians — and there had been consultations, of a sort, with Indigenous groups.
The 1969 White Paper was one of the most aggressive Indigenous policy initiatives in Canadian history, designed to remove barriers between peoples and overcome decades of discrimination and state paternalism. The response from First Nations was ferocious. Indigenous leaders organized protests and demanded the federal government retract its policy. The government did so, to the dismay of many non-Indigenous Canadians who wanted to remove the “special status” afforded Indigenous peoples. The contemporary Indigenous rights movement in Canada owes a great deal to the reaction to this ill-conceived and assimilationist strategy.
The Prime Minister was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His minister of Indian and Northern Affairs was future prime minister Jean Chrétien. They were the architects of the White Paper of 1969. Trudeau believed “no society can be built on historical might-have-beens,” and opposed Indigenous land claim negotiations, modern treaties, and the concept of historical redress.
The Trudeau government’s much-touted “Just Society” had a blind spot when it came to Indigenous peoples. The government’s preference for state intervention and the inherent paternalism of federal policy in the 1960s and 70s arguably accelerated the decline of Indigenous language and culture, fostering a culture of welfare dependency in Indigenous communities.
Would it be appropriate for critics of government policy to focus their anger on Trudeau and Chrétien, leading to more monument destruction and renaming? Absolutely not; we can use our time and effort much better. Besides, when faced with sustained Indigenous anger, the Liberal government backed down. Unlike residential schools, which had major effects across generations, the White Paper brought to the surface the core ideas and values of the government of the day.
The past is a complicated place. It should not be reduced to memes and social-media messages. Historical leaders are people, with personal foibles, living in and reflecting their places and times. Democracies hold leaders accountable during their political lives. Historians and the public determine their legacy. Attitudes toward the leaders and their actions change over time, as the debate about John A. Macdonald demonstrates. But these discussions should be handled with caution.
The piecemeal and reactive redoing of historical nomenclature, however well meaning, produces distortions of history. This said, Canada is desperately overdue for a rethinking of the many people and events we memorialize.
Names and monuments should not be fixed for all time. New Zealand, now also known as Aotearoa, and Australia have both ventured down this road, with considerable achievement. New Zealanders are increasingly comfortable with both Maori names and cultural references in public affairs; Australia’s newly elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese, was introduced on a stage where the Australian flag shared pride of place with the flags of Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders.
There is so much to recognize and celebrate in Indigenous cultures that Canada should get on with it. Indigenous peoples, cultures and knowledge need to be more prominently recognized across Canada. The same holds for women, minority groups, and events either poorly or inaccurately represented in our historical nomenclature. A cautious renaming process in Canada could actually produce the most thoughtful and comprehensive historical and cultural reuniting in the nation’s history.
Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples requires thoughtful and engaged reflection. Changing the names of institutions and tearing down monuments might gratify some, but there is a better way. Toronto Metropolitan University will hardly provide a rallying cry for a nation seeking real healing with Indigenous peoples.
If Canada is to find common ground with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, the country must reverse the lens, begin to view history from Indigenous perspectives and listen respectfully to elders and knowledge keepers.
This reckoning will take more than attacks on historical figures. The problem rests not with a few individuals but with the profound sense of racial superiority that animated public policy for generations, underpinning a suite of government initiatives that marginalized and overwhelmed Indigenous peoples. For all of our condemnation of historical decisions that are now seen as egregious and destructive, Canadians remain largely oblivious to the paternalism and discrimination toward Indigenous people that is part of our national reality.
Canada is, by international standards, a remarkably successful country, even if it is built significantly on the displacement and domination of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. They were sacrificed in the interests of the nation, with most non-Indigenous peoples truly believing that assimilation and cultural domination was the only legitimate path forward. This position, dangerously and tragically wrong, animated the government for a century and a half, to be replaced in our time by a more evolved but still paternalistic approach to Indigenous affairs.
This country needs to devote a great deal of effort to improving relationships with Indigenous communities. To Canada’s collective good fortune, Indigenous peoples remain open to such discussions and to rebuilding Confederation, despite the painful destruction of the past.
We can do much more than try to eliminate historical guilt by changing a few names and sloshing paint on some statues. Instead, the country needs to listen closely to First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and build a policy agenda inspired by Indigenous priorities, a deep understanding of the multi-generational impacts of racism, and a real commitment to lasting reconciliation.
Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan.