Following a years-long process, Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) announced its name change from Ryerson University in late April. The new name was unanimously approved by the institution’s board of governors and put into effect immediately.
This change is the first of many steps for TMU to imagine a future beyond the legacy of its previous namesake, Egerton Ryerson, who was instrumental in the design of Canada’s residential school system. As of the publishing of this article, there are thousands of suspected unmarked graves identified across the country at former residential school sites.
“We really have to ask ourselves if we want to be an institution that focuses on commemorating 19th century colonial administrators,” said Catherine Ellis, an associate professor at TMU’s department of history. “The new name looks ahead to the future. In more Indigenous terms, it looks ahead to the next seven generations. And it’s a name that answers the question, ‘What kind of ancestors do we want to be?’”
Eva Jewell, an Anishinaabe scholar (Deshkan Ziibiing), assistant professor of sociology at TMU and research director at Yellowhead Institute, said she also appreciates the name change. “I think it signals a willingness to listen and an attentiveness to the issues of our time of settler colonialism, and the legacy of settler colonialism and figures who have advanced settler colonial violence and dispossession of Indigenous people.”
Concerns about the university’s association with and commemoration of Ryerson had been voiced by its Indigenous students, staff and faculty for years. How the university addressed those concerns with statements on its website or revised plaques placed next to Egerton Ryerson’s statue fell short of the steps necessary to speak to his legacy or the continued harm it was causing, explained Dr. Ellis.
In the fall of 2020, TMU President Mohamed Lachemi established the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force to respond to Egerton Ryerson’s legacy. Dr. Ellis co-chaired the task force along with the university’s elder, Joanne Dallaire. They arrived at 22 recommendations in August 2021 that were adopted by the school’s board of governors, including the endorsement of a name change. Subsequently a renaming advisory committee was formed to develop criteria and suggest a shortlist of possible names. The committee reached out to the public for consultation through a survey that received over 30,000 responses and over 2,000 unique name suggestions. “We had a lot of guidance from that survey,” Dr. Ellis said. “People wanted to see the new name reflect the location and secondly, to reflect the mission and values and the vision of the university.”
In the interim, an initiative led by Indigenous students temporarily and unofficially rebranded the school as “X University,” in an open letter published by Yellowhead Institute. “For people who were very attached to the name, for whatever reasons they were attached to their pride in a white supremacist figure, to remove the power of that name and to provide a placeholder, gave a space of transition,” explained Dr. Jewell. “For those of us who were denouncing the continuation of the commemoration of a man who structured and proposed residential schools, it gave us a space to think through and to imagine the future where we don’t commemorate colonizers.”
In many ways, the work of both the renaming committee and Standing Strong Task Force built on the efforts of the school’s Indigenous population. “We’re really building on and trying to support and compliment the work that others have been doing for a very long time, often Black and Indigenous and other marginalized and racialized people,” Dr. Ellis explained.
Beyond the name, Dr. Ellis and Dr. Jewell both agreed that there’s still much work to be done. Dr. Ellis said that work on many of the other 22 recommendations is underway. That includes a change to the university’s mascot Eggy the Ram (named for Ryerson and chosen because of his zodiac sign), a new minor in Black studies, and further updates on fulfilling commitments to anti-Black racism and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It’s all still to come, because the slogan that they’re using now is ‘a new chapter’. That signals to me a willingness to change and to shift the culture, which I think is really positive,” said Dr. Jewell. “But these institutions do not change on their own volition, on their own morality. They change because marginalized communities, racialized Black, Indigenous communities, two-spirit communities enforce them.”