A statue of Egerton Ryerson at the university named for him was toppled on Sunday after a demonstration in honour of the 215 children whose remains were discovered at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C.
The statue, on Gould Street at the heart of the downtown Toronto campus, was doused with paint and smashed during the gathering that began earlier in the day at Queen’s Park.
As the bell tolled 8 p.m. from the Kerr Hall clock tower, people surrounded the fallen statue and later climbed atop the now-empty base, both of which were covered in graffiti referencing the 215 lost children and the role of government and churches in residential school atrocities.
Supporters at the site said they were relieved to see the statue, a point of contention for years, come down.
Kayla Sutherland, who stood atop the plinth and said a prayer, said she saw the removal of the statue not as an act of aggression but as a ceremony, adding that it would be a positive memory for her.
Sutherland said her grandmother went to a residential school, and she has never been able to access records about the school or what happened there.
She said the march from Queen’s Park to the statue had a strong message: “Canada is guilty of genocide.”
Indigenous people who were sent to residential schools and their families continue to bear the scars of that experience, she said.
As the evening wore on, onlookers came and went while demonstrators milled around the fallen monument.
People took turns hitting the head of the statue while others drummed and lit bundles of sage as the light began to fade. It was a celebratory but at times chaotic scene, with shouts as police briefly talked to the demonstrators, and chants of “No peace on stolen land” as trucks arrived just after 9 p.m.
When the pickup trucks pulled up and men in orange vests got out, demonstrators surrounded the statue, saying it could not be removed.
Minutes later the trucks drove away and the crowd cheered.
Jamie Drakes-Lindsey, who goes by the name Monikwa, said they weren’t present when the statue came down, but they were moved by the sight of it on the ground.
“I came, I parked my bike, I cried. I literally dropped to my knees,” said Drakes-Lindsey.
“This is very emotional, a very proud thing for us. This is definitely a win.”
Drakes-Lindsey had been camping out at the statue for the last four days, they said, protecting the shrine of children’s shoes at the base representing the 215 children whose remains were discovered in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School last month.
Drakes-Lindsey said there was a police presence all day during the demonstration at Queen’s Park and at the statue.
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Some demonstrators said a “wind” or “tornado” took down the statue, indicating they would not share more details about how it was dislodged.
Gary Wassaykeesic said the statue “feels good coming down.”
“But we have to go further than this statue,” he said.
“What policies are actually being changed?” she asked. “What are those systematic changes that need to happen within all levels of government?”
Sutherland said she wants to hear a proper apology from the Catholic Church, which operated the residential school where her grandmother was sent.
On Sunday, Pope Francis angered people across Canada with a statement that acknowledged the discovery in Kamloops but did not directly apologize to Indigenous people for the church’s role in residential schools.
The statue and the name of the university itself have become flashpoints because of the role of Egerton Ryerson, a 19th-century educator, in shaping Canada’s residential schools system. The system, which lasted for more than a century until the last school closed in 1996, saw tens of thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children forcibly removed from their families and made to attend the church-run, government-sponsored schools. Thousands of children died at the schools, where physical and sexual abuse was rampant.
Wassaykeesic said what happened in downtown Toronto on Sunday represented “the power of the child,” referring to the discovery of the 215 children’s remains in Kamloops.
Last week, a group of faculty called for Ryerson’s name and statue to be removed from the institution.
“We, Indigenous faculty at Ryerson, sign our names to this letter, with the hope we are finally heard, both by the university community, who we ask to join this campaign, and by the university administration, who we ask to recognize that the time to remove the statue and rename our school is now,” they wrote.
Last month, a separate letter from the Yellowhead Institute, a First Nation-led research centre at the university, said its students and faculty would be removing “Ryerson” from their email signatures and other documents, instead calling the school “X University.”
Drakes-Lindsey said they believe this is just the beginning.
“When I used to be homeless … I used to sleep here,” they said outside the university. “It would taunt me. It would look down on me, that statue.”
Last week, a painting and bust of Egerton Ryerson were removed from the Ontario legislature after a request from the leader of the Opposition NDP.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
With files from The Canadian Press
Rosa Saba is a Toronto-based business reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rosajsaba
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