In a historic gesture toward reconciliation, Ryerson University is rebranding itself as Toronto Metropolitan University, cutting its connection to the man considered to have laid the foundations of the residential school system.
The new name came after years of advocacy by staff, students and community members.
“Truthfully any name probably would have worked as long as it wasn’t Ryerson,” said Hayden King, the executive director of the Yellowhead Institute at the school and an assistant professor in the sociology program. “I do feel a sense of relief, though, like a long battle is finally over. And we won. The community should be proud of that.”
The school announced the name change Tuesday afternoon following a vote by its board of governors, which approved the name recommended by president Mohamed Lachemi.
“I cannot think of a better name than Toronto Metropolitan University,” said Lachemi in a statement. “Metropolitan is a reflection of who we have always been — an urban institution dedicated to excellence, innovation and inclusion — and who we aim to be — a place where all feel welcome, seen, represented and celebrated.”
Jennifer S. Simpson, the provost and vice-president, academic, and chair of the renaming advisory committee, said in a press release that through community engagement, they learned there was a “strong desire” across groups of students, faculty, and alumni for the name to reference a place or location.
Those who graduated from the school before 2022 can either keep their existing degree that contains the “Ryerson” name or request a reissue of the degree that bears the Toronto Metropolitan name.
The Ryerson University Act must be officially amended before changes to degrees can be made, according to the school’s website. The provincial legislation allows the university to operate.
In 2021, the school embarked on a renaming process following years of calls for it to drop its name. This also followed a summer of protest by students, advocates and Indigenous leaders, which led to the toppling of Egerton Ryerson’s statue on Gould Street after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a Kamloops residential school in May last year.
Ryerson, a Methodist minister and superintendent of schools for Upper Canada, was the architect behind the 1847 Ryerson Report, which laid the foundation for residential schools in Canada. The residential school system saw Indigenous children taken from their families in an attempt to assimilate them at government-funded, church-run schools that often abused and starved children and led to thousands of deaths.
Over the last year, more unmarked graves have been identified by authorities across the country, and there have been discussions on how to memorialize these sites.
Last June, 18 Indigenous faculty at the university wrote an open letter that called on the school to change its name. The letter called for “removing the face and name of a symbol of oppression, violence and pain.”
While there is a sense of relief that the Ryerson name is being stripped from the school, some Indigenous faculty and students say the renaming process has been challenging and caused harm to the very groups the name was hurting.
“I’m happy the name is getting changed. That’s part of what we wanted,” said Anne Spice, a professor of Indigenous environment knowledges at Toronto Metropolitan. “But the way that this has been done feels really disempowering for the Indigenous people that have been organizing to make this change happen.”
Spice said the school did not consult extensively with Indigenous faculty and students who pushed for a change, and there’s been a lack of transparency about how the name was picked, including what names were on the short list.
“The self-congratulatory tone that the university is taking is disturbing to a lot of us who’ve been involved in this work,” she said. “It feels like a brand exercise.”
In an email, the university said it engaged in a three-week-long public survey that polled the entire community on the most “critical elements” of the renaming process. It said the school remains committed to implementing all recommendations from the Standing Strong Task Force.
According to the school’s website, a short list was created by having committee members determine “whether a name had the potential to serve the university well over time.” Examples of names that did not meet their requirements are words that are not included in the English language, commemorative names, and names more relevant to particular fields such as “polytechnic” or “creative,” the website states.
But getting the school to engage in the renaming process in the first place took years, and even by spring 2021, the school was not committed to renaming, said Spice.
“Then the university started to really take note when the statue came down.”
Conversations with the university were forced, Spice said, and the school has not acknowledged community members’ hard work leading to the renaming.
Sam Howden, who is completing a graduate degree in social work Toronto Metropolitan, was one of many Indigenous students who led advocacy work around calling the school to be renamed.
Howden said it was upsetting to see the announcement about the school being renamed, when no students were given any advance notice.
“The name just really reflects how they are trying to distance themselves and really remarket the university,” Howden said. “They just took it upon themselves to have these conversations behind closed doors, with very particular, curated individuals, to decide.”
The school should have been accountable to Indigenous communities, and they instead left many advocates out of key conversations, Howden said.
The renaming process is occurring amid a reckoning with Canada’s history of colonialism and racism that has brought up discussions of who society should be honouring. Other institutions and organizations like the Toronto District School Board are engaging in renaming processes that have also been mired in concern from community members about ensuring a renaming is done fairly.
“It’s good, and I take it with some positives, but also some questions about who else was involved in the process, whether Indigenous names were on the table,” said Robert Houle, a B.C.-based artist who also works with the Yellowhead Institute and identifies as a member of Saulteaux First Nation.
The fact it took the school many years to engage in a name-change process — and Canada’s slow pace in identifying mass graves at residential school sites — is an indication that many reconciliation efforts have been reactive, said Houle.
“It’s time that Canadians just start to listen to Indigenous people more, and take some proactive measures,” he said. “If you’re going to be looking toward renaming something, you should be doing the due diligence and engaging with the appropriate communities.”
Ian Mosby, a historian of Indigenous health at the school, also tweeted his support for the new name, calling it “pretty good.”
Ron Reyes, who graduated from what is now TMU in 2020, said he thinks changing the name was the right thing to do — and he’s glad alumni were consulted in the process, having been sent a survey about six months ago on the topic.
“My degree will still say Ryerson, but the name to me doesn’t give me anything,” said Reyes, who is not Indigenous. “We have to change with the times and choose a more suitable name than the architect of the residential school system.”
Reyes said he likes the new name — particularly the fact that it includes the word “Toronto” — and that even though it might take some time to get used to, people will adjust.
Kathryn Ashby, who graduated from Ryerson in 2008 with a marketing management degree, was surprised to learn about the name change Tuesday.
“I have a lot of Indigenous friends and being a Black woman, I do understand that names matter, but I do think it goes a little far,” she said, calling the change “bittersweet” to people like her, the second generation in her family to go to the school called “Ryerson.”
Ashby says she understands that the school had a reckoning with the history of its namesake. Still, she wishes they had landed on a different name.
“Could they not have come up with something else? Named it after somebody better? I think it’s going to hurt both brands because it’s going to create a lot of confusion between TMU and the University of Toronto.”
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