How new names and renewed history studies are inspiring change in Canadian universities

Toronto Metropolitan University is the first Canadian post-secondary institution to change its name as part of a broader re-examination of the whole legacy left by the historical figures after whom so many of our schools, buildings and monuments are named.

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

Why name changes are happening now

There is a growing awareness and recognition 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, has prompted people to ask new and deeper questions about how we got here.

Specifically at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), a group was tasked with reexamining the legacy of former namesake Egerton Ryerson. The 19th-century Methodist minister and advocate for public education had a vision of compulsory, agricultural, and religious education for Indigenous students, separate from non-Indigenous learners. His ideas helped create the residential school system and his actions as superintendent of education informed racially segregated schools in Canada. The TMU task force finally proposed 22 recommendationsincluding a name change for the school which took effect on April 26.

People walk on the campus of what is now Metropolitan University of Toronto on April 26. Although the former Ryerson University has a new name, the change will be in phases according to its president, Mohamed Lachemi. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

These types of conversations are a reminder that history — and the notion of legacy — evolves, said Barrington Walker, professor of history 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 to attend university, these students began to demand that their institutions respect 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 history and tackle their history,” Walker said.

“Universities are part of what happens in society at large.”

The Continuing Harm of Historical Names

Seeing institutions drop the names of people whose pasts have particularly harmed marginalized groups shows that “people are listening and…they are also acting on the calls to action [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]“said Cora Voyageur, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

“The trauma experienced by Indigenous people, primarily First Nations people, is real,” Voyageur said. “All these racist tropes that we’ve had in the past, we need to rethink them and change our mindset.”

In the spring of 2019, for example, McGill University agreed to change the name of its varsity men’s sports teams – dropping a term widely known to be offensive to Indigenous peoples – after a renewed campaign led by an Indigenous student athlete after years of complaints from former students about the discriminatory name.

Voyageur wants these conversations and history lessons to continue at all levels of education. The people and communities touched by this story are still with us, and Canada’s future decision makers are today’s students, she said.

People may feel uncomfortable with ugly parts of Canada’s history, but “you don’t have to like it…You just have to recognize that it’s part of our history,” says Cora Voyageur, professor of sociology at the University of Calgary and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. (Jodi O Photography)

“It’s something that stains Canadian society…Canada needs to realize that we have a racist history,” she said, citing a wide range of harmful and discriminatory policies, ranging from those against First Nations in Komagata Maru Incidentthe the internment of Japanese Canadians, Chinese head tax and more.

The sociology professor says people sometimes react defensively to these kinds of conversations, saying they weren’t part of those 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 recognize that it’s part of our history.”

Dalhousie University has drawn on its history, but has not changed its name. Why not?

In 2019, a panel concluded its exploration in Dalhousie University’s history of racism, its links to the transatlantic slave system, and what it describes as the “problematic history” of the Halifax school’s founder, the former lieutenant governor of the Nova Scotia which had profited from the sugar, molasses and rum trade in the early 19th century. The final report demanded a formal apology, a provincial memorial and other reparations, but no name change.

The goal of the Dalhousie panel was to make meaningful changes to impact current and future students, such as improving the experience for Black learners and developing the first major in Black Diaspora Studies and at a Canadian university,” said Isaac Saney, a historian at Dalhousie University and chair of the design committee for the new major. (Dalhousie University)

Changing the name was indeed discussed but was not part of the official mandate, according to Dalhousie historian Isaac Saney, a member of the panel. Instead, the focus was on making a historical assessment “but also making recommendations that could lead to substantial changes in [the university’s] relationship with that heritage — and with the African Nova Scotian community,” he explained.

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

He pointed to the solid changes in place, such as the recruitment of more black professors and the development of the first major in black and African diaspora studies at a Canadian university – a development committee of which he now chairs.

“Nobody says Lord Dalhousie should be erased from history. People say he should be put in the proper historical context,” Saney noted. “When we do these things, we are signaling the kind of society we would like to create: a fairer and more equitable society.”

Similarly, TMU also said that they will follow up their name change with more action.

“It’s a work in progress that has just begun, but it’s a long journey,” said TMU President Mohamed Lachemi.

Are other schools reviewing their namesakes?

These conversations are indeed taking place in many institutions. Some advocates continue to push for greater recognition of a namesake’s complicated history, including at McGill University in Quebec. Other institutions have renamed individual buildings, such as at Ontario’s University of Windsor and Queen’s University.

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 discriminatory immigration policies against Chinese, Japanese, Indians and African Americans.

“In many ways, the historical record hasn’t been tapped as fully as it should be,” said Walker, who is associate vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion at school as well as a history teacher.

Universities are part of what happens in society at large,” says Barrington Walker, professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University and associate vice president of equity, diversity and inclusion. (Wilfrid Laurier University)

“There’s also a perception that once people have written about the past, they’ve written it down and that’s it, but different historians will ask different questions even about historical documents that seem very familiar to people. They will bring different looks, different lived experiences.”

The project won’t avoid digging up ugly details, Walker said. The hope is to address these elements, inspire thoughtful reflection and develop best practices to make the university more diverse and open to groups that have traditionally not had access to post-secondary education.

“Beyond my hat as a historian, it is the interest of doing this work: to show that we can live up to the best version of ourselves.”

I am an alumnus of what is now TMU. Do I receive documents for new graduates?

Alumni should note that its legal name remains Ryerson University until an amendment to the Ryerson University of Ontario Act is passed. With a provincial election looming, this part of the change is pending.

“Until [change] takes place, we will continue to issue all legal documents (including summons scrolls) with the old name, Ryerson University,” Lachemi said. “We will communicate more details to our alumni on how to obtain your documents with the new name in the future.”