How new names, refreshed studies of history are inspiring change at Canada's universities

·7 min read
People walk through the campus of what is now Toronto Metropolitan University on Apr. 26. Though the former Ryerson University has a new name, the change will happen over phases according to its president, Mohamed Lachemi. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
People walk through the campus of what is now Toronto Metropolitan University on Apr. 26. Though the former Ryerson University has a new name, the change will happen over phases according to its president, Mohamed Lachemi. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Toronto Metropolitan University is the first Canadian post-secondary institution to change its name amid a wider re-examination of the full legacies left by the historic figures after whom so many of our schools, buildings and monuments are named.

As complicated portraits emerge about Canadian historical figures and their eponymous institutions, CBC News asked historians and a sociologist about how the post-secondary sector is grappling with this sensitive issue.

Why name changes are happening now

There is growing awareness and acknowledgement of the ugly parts of our history, including the systemic racism experienced by Black and Indigenous communities, as well as other marginalized groups. The discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools in various locations across Canada, in particular, prompted people to ask new and deeper questions about how we got to where we are.

Specifically at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), a group was tasked with re-examining the legacy of former namesake Egerton Ryerson. The 19th-century Methodist minister and public education advocate had a vision of compulsory, agricultural labour- and religious-based instruction for Indigenous students, held separately from non-Indigenous learners. His ideas went into the creation of the residential school system, and his actions as superintendent of education informed racially segregated schools in Canada. The TMU task force ultimately proposed 22 recommendations, including a name change for the school that went into effect April 26.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

These kinds of conversations are a reminder that history — and the notion of legacy — evolves, said Barrington Walker, a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, adding that campuses are also a logical place for these kinds of discussions.

He noted how in the 1960s, when the post-secondary sector began to diversify, and more women, racialized people and people with disabilities began attending university, these students began demanding their institutions live up to higher ideals of equality and diversity.

Perhaps what has changed over time is that now "there are more places that are willing to take a look at their histories and to grapple with their histories," Walker said.

"Universities are part of what's going on in the larger society."

The continued harm of historical names

Seeing institutions drop names of people whose past included inflicting harm on marginalized groups, shows that "people are listening and … they're also acting on the calls to action from the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]," said Cora Voyageur, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary and member of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

"The trauma that has been experienced by Indigenous people, primarily First Nation people, is real," Voyageur said. "Any of those racist tropes that we've had in the past, we have to rethink those and change our mindset."

In spring 2019 for example, McGill University agreed to change the name of its varsity men's sports teams — dropping a term widely recognized as offensive to Indigenous people — after a renewed campaign led by an Indigenous student athlete following years of complaints from earlier students about the discriminatory name.

Voyageur wants to see these conversations and history lessons continue across all levels of education. People and communities harmed by this history are still among us, and Canada's future decision-makers are today's students, she said.

Jodi O Photography
Jodi O Photography

"This is something that is a stain on Canadian society … Canada has to realize that we have a racist history," she said, citing a wide range of harmful and discriminatory policies from those against First Nations to the Komagata Maru incident, the internment of Japanese-Canadians, the Chinese head tax and more.

The sociology professor says people sometimes react defensively to these types of conversations, saying they weren't part of these decisions made a century ago.

"I'm not asking you to take responsibility for it," she said. "I'm just asking you to learn it. You don't have to like it, you don't have to feel comfortable with it — you just have to acknowledge that this is part of our history."

Dalhousie University dug into its history, but didn't change its name. Why not?

In 2019, a panel concluded its exploration into Dalhousie University's history of racism, links to the transatlantic slave system and what it described as the "problematic history" of the Halifax school's founder, the former Nova Scotia lieutenant governor who had profited from the sugar, molasses and rum trade in the early 19th century. The final report called for an official apology, a provincial memorial and other reparations, but no name change.

Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University

Changing the name was indeed discussed but wasn't part of the official mandate, according to Dalhousie historian Isaac Saney, a member of the panel. Instead, the focus was on conducting a historical evaluation "but also bringing about recommendations that could lead to substantive change in [the university's] relationship with this legacy — and with the African Nova Scotian community," he explained.

"We wanted to go beyond symbolic change, and we really wanted to have a series of concrete recommendations that would not only, in a sense, push the university forward but bring about the kind of meaningful change you want to have."

He pointed to solid changes in place, such as recruiting more Black faculty and developing the first Black and African Diaspora Studies major at a Canadian university — a development committee on which he's now serving as chair.

"Nobody is saying that Lord Dalhousie should be erased from history. People are saying he should be placed in the proper historical context," Saney noted. "When we do these things, we're signalling what kind of society we would like to create: a more just, more equitable society."

Likewise, TMU also said it would be following up its name change with more action.

"It's an ongoing work that just started, but it's a long journey," said TMU president Mohamed Lachemi.

Are other schools re-examining their namesakes?

These conversations are indeed happening at many institutions. Some advocates continue to push for more recognition of a namesake's complicated history, including at Quebec's McGill University. Other institutions have renamed individual buildings, like at Ontario's University of Windsor and Queen's University.

Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., has created the Laurier Legacy Project to revisit the history of Canada's seventh prime minister, who helped propel Canada to wealth and prominence on the world stage while also creating discriminatory immigration policies against Chinese, Japanese, Indian and African American people.

"In many ways the historical record hasn't been mined nearly as fully as it should be," said Walker, who serves as the school's associate vice-president of equity, diversity and inclusion as well as a history professor.

Wilfrid Laurier University
Wilfrid Laurier University

"There's also a perception that once people have written about the past, they've written it and it's been done, but different historians will bring different questions to even historical records that seem very familiar to people. They'll bring different eyes, different lived experiences."

The project won't avoid unearthing ugly details, Walker said. The hope is to grapple with those elements, inspire deep reflection and develop best practices on making the university more diverse and open to groups who haven't traditionally had access to post-secondary education.

"Aside from my historian's hat, that's the point of doing this work: to show that we can live up to the best version of ourselves."

I'm an alumnus of what's now TMU. Do I get new grad documents?

Alumni should note that its legal name remains Ryerson University until an amendment to Ontario's Ryerson University Act is passed. With a provincial election imminent, that part of the change is on hold.

"Until that [change] takes place, we will continue to issue all legal documents (including parchments at convocation) with the old name, Ryerson University," Lachemi said. "We will communicate more details to our alumni about how to get your documents with the new name in the future."

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