Response to my colleagues – An assault on Indigenous Peoples

I write this acknowledging the 215 children found in the mass, unmarked grave by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School that came to our attention on May 27th, 2021. Tobacco down prayers up for your journey. I write this acknowledge that there are many, many more children waiting to be found.

There are some colleagues at X University who challenge Egerton Ryerson’s role as the architect of residential schools. I write this blog, not to take the bait, but recognize that many will simply take my colleagues’ words as fact or side with an ill-informed popular opinion and then carry on with the status quo. I would like you to consider the facts.

X University put together a Task Force in November 2020 that gathered feedback on reconciling the legacy of Egerton Ryerson’s legacy. My colleagues biased and anti-Indigenous opinions have been strategically circulated, both via email across the university and in non-peer reviewed publications in an attempt to mislead. The Task Force consultation will likely contain some of this false information.

My colleagues purport that

  • Ryerson was a ‘friend’ of Indigenous peoples;
  • people who are ‘attacking’ Egerton Ryerson are imbeciles;
  • Ryerson as an architect of residential schools is a baseless accusation;
  • Ryerson did not contribute to cultural genocide; and
  • the movement against Ryerson is simply a “wider trend to indulge rage against white men”.

This blog will evidence that their position is intentionally biased and perpetuates a false narrative about Egerton Ryerson. As educators, academics and historians, we have an ethical responsibility to provide all the facts and perspectives and allowing academic freedom for people to make their own decisions.

I will counter and ‘evidence’ (unlike my colleagues), some past and recent claims demonstrating that their arguments – to use their wording – “should collapse like a house of cards” and Egerton Ryerson did NOT represent “everything good in education policy”.

Interestingly, these colleagues do not provide you with the Ryerson Report. This Report is readily available via the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

This Report laid the foundation for residential schools in Canada and this is the reason why Ryerson is noted as one of the key architects of residential schools. He laid the foundational stones that advocated for children to be “civilized” through religion and required children to reside together, away from their parents, families and communities.

In this Report, Egerton Ryerson noted,

“the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connect with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings. Even in ordinary civilized life, the mass of the labouring classes are controlled by their feelings and almost the only rule of action, in proportion to the absence or partial character of their intellectual development. The theory of a certain kind of education philosophy is falsified in respect to the Indian: with him nothing can be done to improve or elevate his character and condition without the aid of religious feeling. This influence must be superadded to all others to make the Indian a sober and industrious man. Even a knowledge of the doctrines and moral precepts of orthodox [c]hristianity, with all the appliances of prudential example and moral instruction, is inadequate to produce in the heart and life of the Indian, the spirit and habits of an industrial civilization, without the additional energy and impulsive activity of religious feeling.”

So while my colleagues note that Ryerson “pushed for religious equality”, this was not the case for Indigenous children. Indigenous children required assimilation via a religion imposed upon them, effectively being assimilated by the power of Ryerson’s firm assertions about christianity to civilize Indigenous children. There is no mention by my colleagues or in the Ryerson Report that Indigenous children’s spirituality should be respected or go alongside christian teachings. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Further, Ryerson noted that these industrial schools should “not contemplate anything more in respect to intellectual training than to give a plain English education adapted to the working farmer and mechanic.” How his recommendations differed from “every good common school” was the addition of “agriculture, kitchen gardening, and mechanics, so far as mechanics is connected with making and repairing the most useful agricultural implements. It is, therefore, necessary that the pupils should reside together.” He felt children leaving their homes was “absolutely essential, not merely upon general [c]hristian principles, but also upon the ground of what I may term Indian economics, as it is a fact established by numerous experiments that the North American Indian cannot be civilized.” He recommended children be removed from their uncivilized parents and assimilated through christianity. This was a blueprint for residential schooling. He was a key architect! His Report provided the analogy of the superintendent being the spiritual pastor and a farmer/schoolmaster the father of the family. Ryerson advocated for children to be removed from their families and communities to become members of the family of the farmer.

He firmly believed that separating “the secular from the religious instructions, w[ould] prove a failure and that Government attempting to provide this instruction would be impracticable”. Government would provide grants to the schools, inspect them from time to time and receive reports but the management of the school would be placed in the hands of the church. He noted that the government and the church would decide on the superintendent of the schools, the buildings to be erected and process in how students would be received. Again, providing a blueprint on how children would be removed from their families to attend these schools. My colleagues would have you believe that Egerton Ryerson did NOT contribute to cultural genocide. Assimilation through christianity IS cultural genocide. To think otherwise would require you to believe Indigenous people were accultural. We have had our ceremony, beliefs, teachings, knowledges, practices, and languages for time immemorial.

The Report emphasized the difference in the end goal between manual labour schools and industrial schools for North American Indian children. While learning was the end proposed for non-Indigenous children, the end goal for residential schools was not learning but for the making of “industrious farmers, and that learning is provided for and pursued only so far as it will contribute to that end”. He further emphasized that only agriculture should be pursued because it was not “expedient or practicable” to provide training related to carpentry, shoe-makers, tailors, etc. My colleagues note that this was “about giving [Indigenous people] the skills to function in a society increasingly dominated by European settlers” and that “farming would provide the Indigenous peoples with a sustainable way to survive, and they could indeed continue to exist as a separate people on their own lands”. My colleagues statement is an outright fabrication. The Report makes it very clear what Ryerson thought about Indigenous people – uncivilized and needing religion to become part of the fabric of dominant society. Ryerson did not envision Indigenous peoples living as a separate people on their own lands. And could my colleagues consider that Indigenous peoples survived on the land prior to settlers arriving and were agricultural people already?! In fact, Indigenous people helped settlers learn how to farm the land, gather and hunt. These statements from my colleagues are unethical and intentionally misleading.

My colleagues attempt to position Egerton Ryerson as a friend to Indigenous people; however, the Report clearly indicates his feelings and beliefs about Indigenous peoples as uncivilized. A ‘friend’ does not feel you are inferior, uncivil and only accepting of you if you follow their religious beliefs. That is cultish.

As reflected in his curriculum blueprint, Ryerson emphasized labour and religion with perhaps two hours of a 16 hour day focusing on basic english and bookkeeping. He provided an example of a typical day with the hour or waking up being one hour later during the winter months. The Report noted year round instruction – including the summer months – indefinitely removing children from their homes, families and communities. Again, the emphasis was on labour and religion, not education.

  • Wake at 5:00 am
  • Prayers and lessons until 7:00 am
  • Breakfast at 7:00 am
  • Labour 8:00 am to noon
  • Dinner from 12:00 to 1 pm
  • Labour 1:00 pm to 6 pm
  • Dinner at 6:00 pm
  • Lessons after dinner until 8:00 pm
  • Prayers and retire to bed between 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm

My colleagues note that Ryerson visited the Hofwyl Institution in Switzerland, but they fail to mention that Phillip Emanuel von Fellenberg, who founded this school for the poor, included academic instruction along with agricultural and manual training. The goal was to “raise the living conditions of the poor and weld them into the upper classes”. Religion was not part of Fellenberg’s school and the starting point was not that these poor children were uncivilized. Fellenberg also founded a school for girls.

When my colleagues note that attendance was voluntary, I believe they are referring to Ryerson’s visit to the Normal School in Haarlem in Holland. This Normal School was in no fashion similar to what was proposed in the Report for Indigenous children by Ryerson. Prinsen, the director of the Normal School during the time of Ryerson’s visit, indicated that students of the school had to be at least 15 years old and where nominated to attend. Only 40 students would be admitted for the four year program. This was not a boarding school. Each child received money from the Crown to provide for themselves in the town. See Duppa, B.F. (1839).

No where in the Report does it mention that attendance would be voluntary as mentioned by my colleagues. Clearly, the opening argument for non-secular schooling with children being removed from their families was based on his entrenched belief that Indigenous peoples were inferior, needing to be civilized. This critical point is NEVER articulated by my colleagues. It is fact that Ryerson believed,

  • Indigenous people were uncivilized;
  • could only be civilized through christian religious instruction; and
  • could only be civilized by being removed from their families.

The Ryerson report was a blueprint for residential schools, full stop! The adamant stance that Indigenous children could only be civilized through christianity amounts to cultural genocide.

June 4, 2021

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