Monday, October 25, 2021

Another Look At Egerton Ryerson


People I tend to respect have condemned Egerton Ryerson as the chief instigator of the culturally genocidal and abusive and murderous residential schools. I took their word for it as I know very little about the man. I didn't know he had anything to do with the residential schools. This CounterPunch article by University of Athabasca's Dr. Michael Welton presents Ryerson in a far different light. 

What many Canadians do not understand is that an Ojibwe leader such as Peter Jones was determined to “see manual labour schools established in Canada West, schools run by Indigenous people themselves as administrators and teachers.” Clearly, Jones (and Ryerson) knew that to compete, “the Indians needed to know basic reading, writing, and arithmetic to have a fund of general knowledge about the larger society. Once they had become self-reliant, they could protect their tiny reserves from outsiders’ intrusions, defend the unsurrendered lands to the north and the west, and also participate in the settler’s world around them” (Smith, 1987, p. 193). In other words, Jones and other Anishinaabeg leaders “supported the idea of a residential school, not as a means of working to erase their separate identity, but rather as a defence tactic to strengthen it.”

In a word, they needed formal schools to enable them to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes and sensibilities to defend their cultures and engage the white settler society as equals. It would be up to Indigenous leaders to decide if a residential form of schooling would be appropriate for their youth. Ryerson’s advocacy of training males to be “industrial farmers” makes sense in pre-industrial Canada where farming was the driver of the economy. He thought the churches would run the residential schools; the government would play a supervisory role. Ryerson, Smith states, “worked for the economic self-sufficiency of the Anishinaabeg.”

I thought it was worthy of mentioning.


Purple library guy said...

Hmmm . . . The key here seems to be Peter Jones wanting "schools run by Indigenous people themselves as administrators and teachers." Such schools would have been operable to do the kind of stuff he wanted.

Clearly the residential schools were not that. To the contrary, they were run by a bunch of religious bigots, which made all the difference. So the question is, was this vision of schools run by indigenous people something Ryerson backed? Or did he want what he in fact got? It would appear from the selection that the latter is true; it says "He thought the churches would run the residential schools", which they mostly did.

I think there's a big difference between advocating a Jewish school system run by Jews and advocating for a Jewish school system run by Nazis. I don't think that one can say Ryerson's vision == Ojibwe leader Peter Jones' vision because they both advocated schooling, if Jones wanted schools run by and for indigenous people and Ryerson wanted schools run by and for Catholic colonizing quasi-missionaries.

I also don't know much about Ryerson; maybe he actually would have preferred indigenous-run schools, maybe he just didn't get the difference . . . but at first blush it seems like the article is pulling a bit of bait-and-switch special pleading.

Purple library guy said...

Well, I searched for, found and read the full article (which you didn't link to or give the title of, so it took a bit of work). With the context of the full article, it does look like Ryerson was probably not a bad guy, and likely would have preferred schools that, while religious, were nonetheless largely run by the indigenous.

thwap said...


Sorry for the belated reply. I'm so busy and distracted these days.

This source shows that Ryerson was very much thinking along much more culturally imperialist lines than the CounterPunch writer describes.

Still, Ryerson's past efforts to help the Mississauga people to defend their lands, and his oft-stated desire to see the First Nations succeed as farming are on the credit side.

Yes, he wanted to impose Christianity upon them. But he was a missionary. That particular delusion, however destructive, was sometimes genuinely thought to be doing someone an eternal favour.

Purple library guy said...

Man, history's complicated, eh?

thwap said...