After the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves in a former residential school in Kamloops, demonstrations and calls for Ryerson University to change its name have intensified.
The school where the remains were found was known as Kamloops Indian Residential School which was a part of the mandatory boarding school system in Canada. Through this system set up by the Canadian government and administered by churches, Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their own families for them to assimilate into the dominant white Canadian culture. The children were subjected to horrific treatment and weren’t allowed to acknowledge their heritage, and many survivors have given testimonies of the severe abuse they suffered in various forms. This school system was so extreme, it has been described as cultural genocide, as the aim was to erase the cultures of the Indigenous peoples by indoctrinating their children against it, brutally punishing them if they did not obey. This violated Article 2e of the United Nations Genocide Convention which prohibits “forcible transferring children of the group to another group.” Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission declared Canada guilty of committing cultural genocide against indigenous people in its 2015 final report, the country has yet to officially recognize this as the same.
Who is Egerton Ryerson in all of this? He was the person after whom Ryerson University in Toronto is named, and one of the architects of this residential school system which separated thousands of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children from their families. On Sunday, June 6, protestors toppled his statue to the ground, and the university president Mohamed Lachemi issued a statement that the statue would not be restored or replaced. While the calls for the university to remove the statue and change the university name have been ongoing for years, the recent discovery of the remains gave it a sense of urgency. Now, hundreds of professors and faculty members at the university signed a letter demanding the school change the name to X University, calling for an end to the commemoration of Ryerson. Indigenous students have called for the renaming in efforts to “remove Ryerson’s name and this symbol of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma.” The university’s First Nation-led research centre Yellowhead Institute published an open letter on May 11th titled ‘Introducing X University, An Open Letter To The Community From Indigenous Students’. In this letter they stated that “For us, there is no debate about reconciling Ryerson’s legacy […] From an Indigenous student perspective, it cannot be reconciled. The only solution then, is to change the name”. Due to the unearthing of these mass graves, and the subsequent removal of the Ryerson statue, the renaming has become the forefront of the conversation this week.
In addition to all this, the hashtag #CancelCanadaDay has been trending on social media, propelled by recent events. This hashtag has been greatly amplified and marks the second year in a row that Indigenous group Idle No More is calling for a Cancel Canada Day movement. The group “refuse to sit by as Canada’s violent history is celebrated”, having made the statement soon after the discovery of the Kamloops residential school. They also posted that “Canada remains a country that has built its foundation on the erasure and genocide of Indigenous nations”.