Content Warnings: Mentions of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, mentions of slavery and abuse.
With the recent news that X University (formerly known as Ryerson University) will change its name to distance itself from its founder’s disturbing past, investigations into universities across Canada have opened up regarding the history of some institutions’ founders and their ties to racism and slavery, and just how deeply entrenched racism is in Canadian universities. Yet, the investigations into founders’ histories only scrape the surface of a deep-rooted problem in Canada’s educational institutions.
X University is one of the only universities in Canada whose founder’s history is well-known. Egerton Ryerson founded X University in 1948. He advocated for better education – but only for white, non-Indigenous students, favouring a much different education for Indigenous students: residential schools. Ryerson supported separating Indigenous youth from non-Indigenous youth, enforcing a Christian indoctrination on Indigenous youth, and creating a Euro-Canadian culture. He also agreed with the Bagot Commission Report that recommended manual labour schools, where Indigenous students were separated from their parents, to encourage them to assimilate better.
Ryerson also wrote a report titled ‘Statistics Respecting Residential Schools,’ which outlined how to “best” operate residential schools. This report recommended that Indigenous youth be “educated” separately, and housed in boarding schools with mandatory religious and English classes. Although Ryerson was not the first to conceive of residential schools, he played a significant role in influencing Canada’s residential schooling system.
More recently, in 2010, X University published a statement acknowledging Ryerson’s role in influencing and shaping the residential schooling system and, as a result, the horrifying impact it had on Indigenous people in Canada. Since 2017, the student union at X University has been calling to change the university’s name and remove the statue of Ryerson on campus. At the time, the university’s response acknowledged the damage he caused through residential schools, but still applauded Ryerson’s role in advocating for the public education system.
Following this, an open letter posted on May 11th, 2021, by Indigenous members of X University publicly called out the entrenched racism in Canadian universities and institutions. It stated that X University is more focused on arguing the specifics of what Ryerson did and did not do, rather than reconciling and providing closure to Indigenous students and members of the Indigenous community. In the past few months, more X University students have been signing petitions and calling on the university – both on and offline – to change its name and to acknowledge the harm that comes with associating an educational institution with a founder who advocated for the abuse of Indigenous youth.
By mid-June this year, news emerged of 215 graves at the Kamloops residential school. In light of this, students, staff, and members of Indigenous communities at X University staged a multi-day sit-in protest. Here, residential school survivors shared their experiences of trauma and abuse and saw the beheading of Ryerson’s statue. Later that same day, the rest of the statue was taken down by university staff members. After this event, X University stated it had no intention of replacing the figure; however, it should never have been up, to begin with.
Ryerson is not the only big name on this list. McGill University, founded in 1821, bears the name of James McGill, who was guilty of similar crimes as Ryerson. James McGill was known for engaging in trade and importing products produced on enslaved labour plantations in the West Indies. More significantly, McGill personally enslaved Black and Indigenous people.
The university has acknowledged that James McGill’s engagement in the slave trade amounted to the establishment of the University, however, its admission of fault and reckoning was slow-moving. After numerous petitions and demands to get the statue of McGill taken down from the campus, McGill University finally removed the statue on Friday, July 9th, 2021. To this end, the University has taken small steps to address the impact and challenges for Black and Indigenous communities in Montreal, Quebec.
Universities Across Canada
Unfortunately, the list does not end here. Universities across Canada exhibit a historical legacy of racism and slavery. In another example, on October 19th, 2020, Queen’s University decided to remove the name of Sir John A. McDonald from its law school building, with the Dean of Law admitting that it sends a “conflicting message.” For reference, McDonald was the first Prime Minister of Canada and had an active role in the horrific policies he and his government created to marginalize Black and Indigenous people in Canada.
At the University of New Brunswick, there was George Duncan Ludlow, New Brunswick’s first Chief of Justice in the 1780s. He was one of the last judges in the British Empire to uphold the legality of slavery and he was on the Board of Directors for Sussex Vale Indian Day School, which contracted Indigenous children as indentured slaves. After pressure from the University of New Brunswick Student’s Union and Law Student Society, the school removed the name from its law faculty building. However, this only occurred after the university stated that its incumbent president, Calin B. McKay, was unaware of Ludlow’s ties to slavery. Karl Dore, former assistant professor and Dean of Law, debunked this and reported that he had raised concerns with McKay before the institution’s opening.
Racism on Campus
On June 4th, 2020, many Canadian universities condemned anti-Black violence and racism in North America in response to the protests and demonstrations for the murder of George Floyd – but were these actions performative?
Beginning on June 22nd, 2020, the University of Western Ontario hired a senior advisor to the university’s president on diversity issues. This move came in response to a 66-page report given after a series of hate crimes directed at a Black student who called out a professor for using the n-word in a class. The report found that the racist incidents were not isolated events but rather part of a profoundly ingrained anti-Black sentiment in the university.
On October 27th, 2020, the University of Alberta published an article about Black scholars at the university, calling out secondary schools and other Canadian universities for the lack of diversity and attention to anti-Black racism. The report also introduced measures to protect Black students and faculty and to address the biases against hiring Black staff members.
On February 24th, 2021, the Fifth Estate interviewed law student Jordan Afolabi, who spoke about his experience with anti-Black racism at the University of Windsor, stating that “it’s the difference between him being a lawyer and a criminal.” In the same interview, students and staff members at other Canadian universities reported that they had experienced anti-Black racism on campuses and were targeted when they spoke up. A poll by Global News released in February 2021 showed that over 50% of Canadians think systemic racism is entrenched in its public institutions. While students have been actively speaking up about racism on campus through protests, demonstrations, social media, and petitions, many of them received hate messages and threats in response.
The Equity Myth
“The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities,” written by Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda S. Smith, is a book conducted by various Canadian universities aimed at examining the injustice and racism experienced by racialized and Indigenous faculty members. The book discusses how racialized and Indigenous scholars are less likely to get hired, especially at liberal arts institutions. They are also the least likely to be considered for promotions and tenure and are more likely to be overworked yet underpaid compared to their white counterparts. Plus, Indigenous and racialized scholars’ work is often less valued, especially about race studies.
A Deep-Rooted Problem
The entrenched racism in Canadian institutions runs extremely deep. The issue is that most Canadian universities don’t want to hold people accountable – whether that be the founders, staff members, or students – that have contributed to the history of racism and enslavement. Instead, Canadian universities prefer to push it aside and pretend these issues do not exist, all while putting forward grand statements encouraging diversity in their communities. Moreover, it is not the responsibility of Black and Indigenous peoples to time and time again have to justify why institutions must take action. Canadian universities as a whole need to be accountable for their pasts to move forward, something they are reluctant to do.
The entrenched racism in universities isn’t restricted to Canada either. Universities in the US and Europe have had their racist histories and associations exposed repeatedly. Something needs to change, and it is time for the international community to take a stand because this is a global issue. At the least, racialized students deserve protection, support, and transparency from their universities regarding the racism ingrained into educational institutions. Finally, there needs to be a push for a more diverse curriculum and attention dedicated to hiring and better treating racialized staff members at universities worldwide.