Pembina Trails trustees vote to study name change for Winnipeg’s Ryerson School

This could be one of the last years that Grade 6 students graduate from Ryerson elementary school in south Winnipeg.

A motion to review a name change for the school — linked to Egerton Ryerson, one of the key architects of Canada’s residential school system — passed unanimously at a Thursday night meeting of the Pembina Trails School Division board.

The nine-member board voted to strike a committee to study the name change and report back “as soon as possible.” 

When what are believed to be the unmarked graves of 215 children were discovered on the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia two weeks ago, the division knew it was time to revisit the name, superintendent Ted Fransen said Thursday, prior to the meeting. 

“The situation in Kamloops was, in a way, the straw that broke the camel’s back. We are certainly aware of the history of the name of the school and we were mindful of the fact that we needed to be sensitive to it,” he said.

“So when the Kamloops situation unfolded … there was no question in the minds of our trustees, as a school board, that they needed to revisit this.”

The school division’s superintendent says the discovery of what are believed to be the unmarked graves of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Senior administrators in the division, parents, community members and even some students also started asking questions about what should be done, Fransen said.

“It was really a groundswell,” he said.

“Students were very quick to pick up on this and to ask their teachers if they could discuss it in class.”

Egerton Ryerson — the namesake of Ryerson University, Ryerson Press, and the Ontario township of Ryerson — was a prominent figure in the creation of the public education system in that province but also a leader in creating separate schools with forced assimilation of Indigenous children.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates, based on death records, at least 4,100 children died at the schools from the opening of the first ones in the 1870s until the closure of the last one in 1996, but has said the true total is likely much higher. 

The outrage over the discovery in Kamloops has led to a statue of Ryerson, on the Ryerson University campus in Toronto, being covered with red paint and the words “Dig them up” and “215.” It was later toppled and the beheaded.

Ryerson University’s school of journalism has said it will rename the Ryerson Review of Journalism magazine and The Ryersonian newspaper after conversations with students who the school says felt the “horrific legacy” of the residential school system was too great to continue using the name in their mastheads.

Named for local street

As for Winnipeg’s Ryerson School, Fransen wanted it to be clear the name comes from Ryerson Avenue, the street in the Fort Richmond neighbourhood where the school was built in 1972.

The neighbourhood, around the University of Manitoba, has streets named for other universities, including Acadia and Dalhousie.

“So the school would not have been named after Mr. Ryerson,” Fransen said. “I was not here when the name was picked, but it would not have been picked because of an appreciation for Ryerson the person.”

Should the board vote to change the name, the division will consult the community through an online survey to come up with a new name, then bring it to the board for a recommendation, Fransen said.

He isn’t sure the change could be made by the start of the next school year, considering it is already June.

There’s been no word from the City of Winnipeg as to whether Ryerson Avenue is being considered for a name change as well.

However, Mayor Brian Bowman has said the time has come on Winnipeg’s journey of reconciliation to revisit the name of Bishop Grandin Boulevard.

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, a Roman Catholic priest, believed First Nations people needed to be “civilized” and viewed residential schools as the way to accomplish this.

In the late 1800s, he lobbied the federal government to fund the construction of the schools, which saw children torn from their families and stripped of their identities in what has been decried as a cultural genocide.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.