Metropolitan University: a salutary name change, say experts

Several other places have also changed names, for example the Sir John A. Macdonald school in Markham. Another example: Dundas Street, which runs through downtown Toronto from east to west, must also change its name.

The portrayal of certain Canadian historical figures is examined differently and this examination shows their eponymous institutions in a different light. The Canadian News asked historians and a sociologist how the post-secondary sector is responding to this sensitive question.

Why now?

There is growing awareness and recognition of the inglorious aspects of our history, including the systemic racism experienced by Black and Indigenous communities, as well as other marginalized groups. The discovery of burials in residential schools in various parts of Canada, in particular, has prompted many to ask deeper questions about how we got here.

Ryerson University recently changed its name. A group of researchers from the university – now called Metropolitan Toronto University – have been tasked with re-examining Egerton Ryerson’s legacy.

Portrait of Egerton Ryerson.

Egerton Ryerson was an important politician in Ontario in the 19th century.

Photo: The Canadian Encyclopedia

This 19th century Methodist pastor and public education advocate had a vision for Aboriginal education. It was to be compulsory, based on agricultural work and religion, and Aboriginals were to be separated from non-Aboriginals. His ideas helped create the residential school system, and his actions as superintendent of schools in Upper Canada contributed to racial segregation in schools across the country. The Metropolitan University task force ultimately came up with 22 recommendations, including a name change.

These types of conversations remind us that history — and the notion of legacy — evolves, said Barrington Walker, professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University. According to him, campuses are also a logical place for this type of discussion.

The portrait of a man in a garden.

Barrington Walker is a professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Photo: Courtesy of Wilfrid Laurier University

He noted that in the 1960s, when the post-secondary sector began to diversify and more women, racialized people and people with disabilities began to attend university, these students began to demand that their establishments comply with equality and diversity.

What may have changed over time is that there are now more places that are willing to review their historyMr. Walker said.

The prejudice of these historical names

people listen and […] act on the calls to action of the [Commission de vérité et de réconciliation]said Cora Voyageur, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

For example, in the spring of 2019, McGill University agreed to change the name of its men’s varsity sports teams, which had a name widely known to be offensive to Indigenous peoples. This decision was taken following a campaign led by an Aboriginal student-athlete, who pointed out to him that several complaints had already been submitted by students in the past.

Trauma experienced by Indigenous people, primarily First Nations people, is realsaid Ms. Voyageur.

She wants these conversations and history lessons to continue at all levels of education.

Canada needs to realize that we have a racist history, she said. She cites as examples the Komagata Maru incident, the internment of Japanese Canadians and the Chinese head tax, to name a few.

According to the professor of sociology, this kind of conversation can provoke defensive reactions.

I’m not asking you to take responsibilitydid she say. I simply ask you to learn it. It’s not about loving [la situation] or even to feel comfortable with it. You just have to recognize that it’s part of our history.

What about Dalhousie University?

In 2019, a panel of experts concluded their exploration of the history of racism at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Links to transatlantic slavery have been confirmed. In addition, it has been emphasized the problematic story of the founder of the Halifax school, the former lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia who had profited from the trade in sugar, molasses and rum in the early 19th century.

The final report called for a formal apology, a provincial memorial, and other reparations, but no name change.

This possibility was indeed discussed, but was not part of the official mandate, according to Isaac Saney, a historian at Dalhousie University and a member of the commission. The objective was rather to carry out a historical evaluation but also to formulate recommendations likely to lead to substantial changes in the relationship of [l’université] with this heritage – and with the black community of Nova Scotiahe explained.

A portrait of a man in a classroom.

Isaac Saney is a historian at Dalhousie University.

Photo: Courtesy of Dalhousie University

He said solid changes are in place, such as hiring more black professors and creating the first black and African diaspora studies major at a Canadian university. He is also chairman of this development committee.

No one is saying that Lord Dalhousie should be erased from history. People say it should be placed in the proper historical contextMr. Saney noted. When we do these things, we are signaling the kind of society we would like to create: a fairer, more equitable society.

An example to follow?

Similar discussions are taking place in many institutions. Some activists continue to push for greater recognition of the complex story of a person who lends his name to an academic institution, including McGill University in Quebec. Other institutions have renamed individual buildings, such as the University of Windsor and Queen’s University in Ontario.

Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, created the Laurier Legacy Project to revisit the story of Canada’s seventh Prime Minister, who helped propel Canada to wealth and prominence on the world stage while creating immigration policies that discriminate against Chinese, Japanese, Indians and African Americans.

In many ways the historical record has not been exploited as much as it should have beensaid Mr. Walker, who is the school’s associate vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as a professor of history.

He adds that the story evolves. Different historians will ask different questions about, for example, historical documents that seem very familiar to people. They will bring a different perspective, different lived experiences.

The project will surely unearth unpleasant details, Walker said. The hope is to address these elements to eventually make the university more diverse and open to groups that have traditionally not had access to post-secondary education.

With information from The Canadian News’ Jessica Wong, Vanessa Conley, Nazima Walji and Steven D’Souza

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