Egerton Ryerson: Racist philosophy of residential schools also shaped public education

By Hunter Knight, PhD Candidate, Social Justice Education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole issued a public apology in December: “I said that the residential school system was intended to try and `provide education.’ It was not. The system was intended to remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures.”He was referring to comments he made in a meeting with a Conservative club at Ryerson University, where he defended Egerton Ryerson in response to substantial debate and protest surrounding Ryerson’s legacy.

O’Toole’s apology gives us an opportunity to think about Ryerson’s understanding of education and the purposes of schooling in a settler colonial society. As critics rightly noted, it is true that the primary objectives of residential schools were not to educate children. It is also true that these institutions were part of Ryerson’s broader conception of schooling as key to what he foresaw as the evolution of Canada into a “civilized” white and culturally British nation.

Ryerson designed a model for residential schools that was influential in shaping a system that amounted to cultural genocide. He is also credited for founding public schooling in Ontario.

These developments were not contradictory. As writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter notes, western educational systems are inextricable from colonialism. The development of both residential schools and public schooling are the organic outcome of Ryerson’s educational philosophy.

Dramatic social shift

Schooling existed in a variety of forms in what would become Ontario before the middle of the 19th century, but the rise of mass public education in the latter half of the century marked a dramatic social shift.

As chief superintendent of schools in Canada West starting in 1844, Ryerson presided over this shift. He either wrote or directed many foundational educational laws over the next 30 years.

Ryerson promoted the development of mass public education by saying state-run schools were where every child belonged. The Common Schools Act, with the term “common” supposedly meaning universal, was passed in 1846. But the movement of “universal” education did not give rise to equality of opportunity in schooling.

What followed were proposals or legislation pertaining to the exclusion of at least four constructed categories of children.

In 1847, the Department of Indian Affairs asked for Ryerson’s suggestions for a model for industrial schools for Indigenous children. His recommendations would influence the development of residential schools throughout Canada.

In 1850, under the same act that established separate schools for Catholics and Protestants, he legislated separate schools for Black children. Black families were soon forced into separate schools even when they wished to attend common schools.

In 1862, he outlined plans for schools for the “vagrant and neglected” children of the poor. His plans describe many of the characteristics of what later developed as industrial schools, designed to divert working class children from an imagined future as criminals.

In 1868, he published a report on recommendations for schools for deaf or blind children.

These separate schooling systems had a long-reaching legacy. The last residential school in Canada was open until 1996. Segregated schools for Black students existed in Ontario until 1965. Industrial schools were phased out in the 1930s.

Today, racism in mainstream schooling is an ongoing urgent problem as is school equity or inclusion for Black, Indigenous, low-income and disabled people.

Project of national development

Before he passed any major legislation, Ryerson’s first initiative in his tenure was a report that served as a basis for the Common Schools Act of 1846. It illuminates the philosophy behind Ryerson’s vision.

Ryerson set up the project of schooling as one of national development. This vision was understood in deeply colonial, racialized and hierarchical terms. He wrote:

“We should judge, not by what has been, or is, but what ought to be, and what must be, if we are not to be distanced by other countries in the race of civilization.”

Public schooling was understood as a venue through which children could do necessary work for their country’s “forward development.”

The framework for development here was as an extension of Enlightenment European philosophies of the world and humanity, which were posited as universal while being structured by ideologies of pseudo-scientific racism and evolutionary thought. As Wynter explains, these philosophies emerged amidst efforts to rationalize and justify colonial practices and transatlantic slavery.

Through this lens, advocates of colonial expansion argued that individual humans and races of people progressively develop from irrational, malleable subjects towards higher rationality and advanced scientific capabilities. As such, the state is an ultimate reflection of how advanced, or “civilized,” its people are. In this pseudo-scientific evolutionary philosophy, the “rational, advanced, civilized” subjects who deserve more power _ and are justified in inflicting colonial rule, violence and genocide on others _ are white European men.

Justifying colonial violence, hierarchies

For Ryerson, creating a framework for public schooling and also for residential schools was part of the same project of furthering Canada’s development. The differentiated schooling he proposed was intended to serve those explicit aims, and the contrast in schooling methods and what Ryerson advocated (or did not advocate) for is stark.

Ryerson described education in common schools as a “charming passage,” in which students were inspired towards lifelong learning and growth.

In contrast, for industrial schools for Indigenous children, the model which the residential school system emerged from, Ryerson argued that “a state of civilization” could only be achieved with eight to 12 hours a day of heavy agricultural labour, starting at the age of four. He mused there would likely be little time for academics.

For deaf and/or blind children, he believed that only an intensive focus on manual trades would be able to combat what he saw as their natural idleness.

For segregated schools for Black students, he refused to support Black parents and advocates when school boards (that answered to him) denied them adequate funds, arguing he had no power to help.

And he suggested that industrial schools for “vagrant and neglected children” be structured similarly to prisons.

Ryerson’s legacy is rightly criticized for his role in creating the model for residential schools. How Canadians choose to memorialize him and understand the systems he developed has wide-ranging implications.

Let’s not ignore how the same racist and colonial philosophy behind residential schools was also foundational to mainstream public education.

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