In the last couple of years, systemic injustice, its ramifications, and calls for action have filled the headlines and turned public attention to the disastrous consequences of inequity for racialized and Indigenous communities. The disparate burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing violence and harm done by institutions against Black communities, and the deaths of Indigenous children highlighted by the confirmation of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools in Canada all point to the need for significant institutional change.
Equity is a national concern and one that crosses every sector. Through decades of work by bodies such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as by Canadian organizations, institutions and communities, Canada is acknowledging its responsibilities toward anti-colonialism and exploring the work of charting a different path forward. The Toronto City Council recently decided to rename Dundas Street in light of Henry Dundas’ association with the Atlantic slave trade. In 2020, Queen’s University decided to remove the name John A. Macdonald from the law school building because of the “conflicting message [the name sends] that interferes with the values and aspirations of the current law school.” The names of our institutions constitute one area of possible inequity. A thorough examination of systemic racism and colonialism will necessarily investigate a range of realities, practices, and policies.
Ryerson University continues to consider its relationship to colonialism and racism, and to commit to different ways forward. In August 2021, the university’s board of governors endorsed all 22 of the recommendations of the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force report. One of those recommendations is to “rename the institution in a process that engages with community members and university stakeholders.” The task force’s report notes that Egerton Ryerson “drafted the Bill that became the Common School Act (1850),” which supported the existence of separate schools based on race, religion, and gender. Ryerson’s ideas related to education remained relevant to policies and practices well after 1850. While Ryerson made a range of contributions to public life, he is one of many public figures whose collective influence contributed to and/or sustained inequitable educational systems.
The renaming process at Ryerson University underscores a few critical points.
First, equity work speaks to our collective sense of purpose and life together, and not exclusively or even primarily to one specific cultural group. Anti-colonialism and anti-racism, and the renaming process at the university, will necessarily engage multiple communities. The outcomes of the renaming process will provide a way forward for, and benefit, the university community as a whole.
Second, equity work is urgent, and it requires more than awareness. It is not sufficient to name the existence of injustice. Institutions must change our practices. University leaders will ideally understand equity work as a central part of our professional and institutional responsibilities at this particular moment.
Third, while institutional commitments to equity will ideally be thoughtful and strategic, they will also involve uncertainty. The work of equity asks leaders to support movement toward justice, even when we cannot always foresee or predict the path forward.
Finally, equity work will involve disagreement, a hallmark of vibrant intellectual and educational contexts. Ideally, those engaged with this work will understand disagreement, at least in part, as informing a deeper understanding of a shared way forward, rather than centrally as a set of competing propositions and assertions.
The mandate of the University Renaming Advisory Committee at Ryerson is to develop a short list of potential names. The committee will forward the short list, along with a rationale for the selections, to president and vice-chancellor Mohamed Lachemi, who will then make a recommendation to the board of governors for a final decision by the end of the 2021-2022 academic year. This committee, led by myself in the role of chair and Tanya De Mello in the role of vice-chair, is composed of a diverse group of students, staff, faculty, and alumni who bring a wealth of experience, knowledge, and expertise to the committee’s work.
Read also: Indigenous students, faculty weigh in on renaming process at Ryerson
One of the committee’s first initiatives was to reach out to the university’s constituencies for input. In November and December 2021, university community members confirmed the importance of collective engagement with the process of change. Over 30,000 students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, university stakeholders and partners provided their input. This input will inform the committee’s completion of the short list. The university will soon share publicly the approach to and plans for implementation of the 22 recommendations from the task force. The work of implementation will remain iterative, with multiple points for reflection and conversation.
Ryerson University, along with many other institutions and Canada more broadly, is implicated in the complexities and consequences of colonialism. The damage that colonialism and racism continue to cause is significant. As a community and an institution, Ryerson is opting to grapple with these complexities and consequences, to listen to what we need to change and to work out what is next. Moving toward equity will require institutions and individuals to name what is wrong and to imagine a different way forward.
I would invite those interested in learning more about Ryerson University’s commitment to the recommendations of the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force, including our renaming, to visit https://www.ryerson.ca/next-chapter/.
Jennifer S. Simpson is provost and vice-president academic at Ryerson University.