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Renaming Ryerson University is a poor way to deal with Canada's ugly past

Renaming Ryerson University is a poor way to deal with Canada's ugly past
From CBC - July 17, 2017

The push among social justice advocates to erase the names of those involved in unsavoury parts of Canadian history is a misguided way to deal with our past.

The latest example is from the Ryerson Students' Union and the Indigenous Students Associationtwo groups that want to see the school change its name because its namesake, Egerton Ryerson, is believed to have been instrumental in developing Canada's residential school policies.

The demand comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Langevin Block would be renamed the "Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council," and Calgary city council voted to rename Langevin Bridge as "Reconciliation Bridge" because of Hector-Louis Langevin's involvement in the residential school system.

While these name changes might offer symbolic victories for advocates, they are actually a rather ineffective way of grappling with the racist and otherwise oppressive policies from Canada's past. Indeed, by stripping a building or institution of its name, it eliminates an opportunity to talk about pre-Confederation Canada's involvement in slavery, residential schools and restrictive immigration policies. Institutions can simply "scrub" themselves of this history and absolve themselves of any responsibility for talking about it.

If given a new name, Ryerson University, for example, would no longer have to make a statement about or acknowledge Egerton Ryerson's legacy and influence. The conversation would disappear.

What's more, by singling out people such as Egerton Ryerson or Hector-Louis Langevin as influencers in the creation of residential schools, advocates areinadvertently or intentionallyblaming them for the policies, rather than seeing them as part of a system of politicians, civil servants and voters who, together, implemented and supported these policies.

Canada's fraught history

Arguably, every Canadian government has been responsible for the functioning and continuity of the residential school system, up until the last school was closed in 1996. Displacing Indigenous people onto reservations and placing their children in residential schools was a way to facilitate European and non-European settlement across Canada.

As for slavery: slaves fulfilled a labour shortage in New France, and the "gifting" of slaves was an integral part of building alliances between Indigenous peoples and European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Historical acknowledgements

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