A statue of one of the architects of Canada’s residential schools system has been toppled and will not be replaced, the president of Toronto’s Ryerson University said, after protesters rallied to honour the 215 Indigenous children whose remains were found at a former school.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in Toronto on Sunday to commemorate and demand justice for the children discovered at Kamloops Indian Residential School in the western province of British Columbia late last month.
A statue of Egerton Ryerson, who helped create the system in which more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were separated from their families and forced to attend church-run boarding schools, was torn down.
The residential schools, which were open from the 1870s to the 1990s, were rife with abuse and more than 4,000 Indigenous children are believed to have died there, most often from disease.
Mohamed Lachemi, president and vice chancellor at Ryerson University, said in a statement that about an hour after the last protesters left, “a truck arrived … and proceeded to pull down the statue of Egerton Ryerson”.
“The statue will not be restored or replaced,” Lachemi said.
The statue’s toppling came amid wider calls for the Canadian government, as well as the Roman Catholic Church that ran most of the residential schools, to take concrete action to deal with the continued harms the institutions have wrought on Indigenous communities.
For years, students and professors at Ryerson University have called for the statue to be removed, joining wider calls across Canada and abroad to rename buildings and institutions – and remove monuments – honouring historical figures involved in racist systems, such as slavery.
In late August 2020, a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, John A Macdonald, who was instrumental in the creation of the residential schools system, was torn down from a square in downtown Montreal.
Ryerson was a 19th-century figure who served as chief superintendent for education in what would become the province of Ontario.
According to a report by Ryerson University’s Aboriginal Education Council (AEC), “although [Ryerson] did not implement or oversee the launch of the [residential] schools, he contributed to the blueprint of them.”
The report cited a letter Ryerson sent to the Department of Indian Affairs, in which he wrote of Indigenous pupils: “Nothing can be done to improve and elevate his character and condition without the aid of religious feeling. This information must be superadded to all others to make the Indian a sober and industrious man.”
Indigenous students at Ryerson University said last month that they would begin calling the school “X University” in an effort to “remove Ryerson’s name and this symbol of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma”.
“For us, there is no debate about reconciling Ryerson’s legacy. It doesn’t matter how many non-Indigenous historians send their fawning letters of support for Egerton. From an Indigenous student perspective, it cannot be reconciled,” they wrote in an open letter on May 11.
Meanwhile, Indigenous communities, as well as residential school survivors, are renewing their longstanding demand for the Catholic Church to apologise for its role in the abuses that took place at the institutions.
Gerry Shingoose, a 63-year-old residential school survivor, told Al Jazeera that in addition to an apology from Pope Francis, she wants to see charges laid against abusers and for the Catholic Church to publicly release all its records about residential schools.
“I’m seeking justice for the 215 children and for the children yet to be found. I’m seeking justice for residential school survivors,” she said. “As a residential school survivor, we shared our stories over and over again – and the Catholic Church never acknowledged them or admitted what they did to us in the school.”
On Sunday, Pope Francis expressed “pain” at the discovery of the 215 Indigenous children’s remains in Kamloops, but he did not offer the apology long-sought by residential school survivors, their families and their communities.