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Where does it stop?

June 2021

Re: “‘Dark shadow’: Ryerson Public School in Burlington to be re-named,” (Kathy Yanchus, 17 June):

For the past several years, many have been calling for the Stalinesque erasure of people from Canada’s past. Our first prime minister and father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald, has been a favourite target for his support of Indian Residential Schools.

Now, Egerton Ryerson is facing the cancel mob, including in Burlington. Ryerson was appointed the Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844, and played a role in designing the education system in Ontario, as well as the Canadian Indian Residential School system, even though he died before the schools opened.

Halton District School Board trustees have announced that Ryerson Public School in Burlington, Ontario, will be re-named, in light of the recent discovery of the unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

While the names of things like schools, public buildings, parks, community groups, etc., do change from time to time, we should all be concerned about the reasons for changing the name of Ryerson Public School, because it leads to the obvious question of where does the canceling of historical figures end?

An inconvenient truth is that every politician, from left to right, from every level of government, who didn’t actively advocate for the abolition of residential schools, especially federal politicians, could be justifiably criticized for at least tacitly condoning them. Let’s not forget that the last federally operated school, the Gordon’s Indian Residential School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, closed in 1996.

That was during the prime ministership of Jean Chr├ętien, a man who should know a thing or two about the residential schools as he also served as the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development from 1968-1974.

Should we change the name of anything named after every politician prior to 1996, especially those who served as Prime Minister and Minister of Indian Affairs, now called the Ministry of Crown-Indigenous Relations?

Is it time to re-name Pierre Trudeau Airport and Wilfrid Laurier University?

John C. Munro, the namesake of Hamilton’s airport served as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs from 1980-1984. Should we be removing his name too?

How about schools named for John Diefenbaker, Lester B. Pearson, or the institute named after Brian Mulroney at St. Francis Zavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia? There’s Ecole Joe Clark School, in High River, Alberta. Do we re-name that school too?

How about schools named after Prime Ministers John Abbott, John Thompson, Mackenzie Bowell, Charles Tupper and the aforementioned Wilfrid Laurier, all of whom served as Prime Minister in the 1890s and early 20th Century, when residential schools began opening and before they really became entrenched?

We really do need to be careful about judging the past using today’s morals and standards. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t condemn those past attitudes or actions, and try to achieve some sort of atonement, but if we condemn the people themselves for following things that were socially acceptable in their day, where do we stop?

Let’s not forget that the views that Egerton Ryerson and Sir John A. Macdonald held in relation to Residential Schools, or even of Indigenous people, were in line with others of their time.  

Slavery was once socially acceptable, and celebrated Mohawk warrior and political leader Chief Joseph Brant was a slave owner in his time. Should we remove his name from Joseph Brant Hospital, and change the names of Brant County and the City of Brantford?

Does Tommy Douglas, the “father of socialized Medicare in Canada” get a pass?  He is a hero to many Canadians, not just to those on the left, yet in his day, he advocated for labeling homosexuality as a mental illness.  Ironically, this was a very progressive opinion because homosexuality was considered a criminal offence at the time, so despite the repugnant nature of this opinion by today’s standards, it was a step forward.

Despite what some progressives may think, even “liberal-minded” people supported homosexuality being a criminal offence, some even after it was decriminalized in 1969.

Further, Douglas wrote his master’s thesis in Sociology supporting the then popular social philosophy of eugenics, the idea that the genetic quality of people can be improved by interning in camps those deemed “subnormal” (those of low intelligence, loose morals or suffering from sexually transmitted diseases) and sterilizing those judged “mentally defective.”  Eugenics was something the Nazis practiced.

Do you see where this is going?

Bottom line, you really do need to be careful what you wish for. We shouldn’t ignore the horrible things we did in the past, but we do need to keep those sins in context.

Sources: ‘Dark shadow’: Ryerson Public School in Burlington to be re-named (insidehalton.com).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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