Foundations of Education


Summarizes and problematizes the contributions of Egerton Ryerson.

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The Legacy of Egerton Ryerson

Last week's topics touched on the pioneering work of Egerton Ryerson who served as the Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada for 32 years (1844 - 1876). Ryerson's educational leadership in 19th century Ontario was so influential that he has been called the "father of public education in Ontario."

However, Ryerson also advocated for the creation of the residential school system for Indigenous children which was a topic focus last week.

"While advocating for free and compulsory education, Ryerson supported different systems for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. He supported the system of educating Indigenous students separately and converting them to Christianity, in order to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture…In 1847, the Indian Affairs Branch of the government asked Ryerson to write a report () on the best methods of operating residential schools…In this report, Ryerson recommended that Indigenous students continue to be educated in separate, agriculturally based boarding schools with religious and English language instruction…He proposed that the schools be run by religious organizations and overseen by the government…Ryerson did not invent the idea of residential schools. But his recommendations influenced the development of Canada’s devastating residential school system." (Semple, N. (2017). Egerton Ryerson. The Canadian Encyclopedia. URL:

During his lifetime and for many decades afterwards, Ryerson's legacy was largely a positive one. However, in recent years, Ryerson's support for the creation of the residential school system for Indigenous children has led many to reassess and problematize his contributions to education in Canada. () ()

How are we to square the two legacies of Egerton Ryerson? Should his undeniable contributions to the development of public education in Ontario be lauded or should his advice to establish the residential school system negate such accolades?

Below is a 2019 newspaper article by Gord Sly, a retired history teacher/department head and volunteer/president of the Frontenac County Schools Museum, which chronicles Ryerson's impact on Ontario education.

For the purposes of this course, the article has been divided into three parts. Part 1 presents an overwhelmingly positive view of Ryerson's contributions. (This is essentially how Ryerson's contributions were viewed during his lifetime and in the decades which followed.) Part 2 problematizes Ryerson's influence on Canadian education, focusing both on his recommendations to establish the residential school system, as well as his views on girls' education and segregated schools. In Part 3, the author concludes with his own views.

Part 1 of 3

In the mid-19th century, Adolphus Egerton Ryerson had a huge impact on public education in Canada West (Ontario) and is often referred to as the 'father of public education in Ontario.' He was a maverick in a conservative society, ahead of his time in terms of his values and attitudes. He strongly criticized the powerful oligarchical “family compact” of the wealthy and well educated, the ruling power in Upper Canada in the early 19th century.

He became an avid defender of Methodism against the politically powerful Anglican Church. He founded the Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, later [re]named Victoria College, and became its president. The college later moved to Toronto and still exists as a part of the University of Toronto.

Ryerson’s interest in public education actively took off in the 1840s. He wrote that education should be a major priority of governments, a requirement “as common as air and water.” He saw education as the best avenue for protecting and ensuring good government and constitutional liberty, partial knowledge being better than total ignorance. Governor General Sir Charles Metcalfe appointed him to the office of chief superintendent of common schools of Canada West in 1844, the year the Canadian capital moved from Kingston to Montreal. At the time, there were about 2,500 elementary schools in Upper Canada, financed by government grants, [with] local property taxes and tuition fees paid by parents. Throughout Upper Canada, local education committees independently supervised schools and teachers.

Ryerson introduced a government-supervised standardized elementary school system throughout the province. According to Ryerson, the basis of a true system of universal education was that all students would become useful, law-abiding citizens, as well as contributors to public institutions. Giving equal opportunity for education to less-privileged children would also help reduce poverty and social problems in local communities.

As chief superintendent of education for Upper Canada, Ryerson toured Europe from November 1844 to December 1845 [in order] to study public elementary school systems. When he returned to Canada West, he wrote an extensive report, and in 1850 began publishing The Journal of Education for Upper Canada, providing exhaustive, meticulous information and recommendations for practically every aspect of public education.

He wanted all students in Ontario to benefit equally from educational resources. For example, he would introduce and authorize uniform textbooks, along with standardized materials and aids for teaching and learning in schools. Schools in Canada West began using the standardized “Irish Readers” until a viable Canadian publishing industry was established. In the 1830s, Ireland pioneered a mass educational system based on the internationally renowned standard set of textbooks called the Irish National readers.

Ryerson believed the teacher was the most important component of the school system [which] required drastic reform and support. He called for [the] certification of teachers and the establishment of normal schools. He ventured to raise the pay and profile of teachers to a more 'professional' and respectable level in communities, allowing teachers to support themselves. He also set out clear guidelines for the responsibilities, duties, and conduct of teachers inside, as well as outside, the classroom.

From 1846 to 1871, he introduced three successful major pieces of legislation. These acts called for such things as the creation of school boards in the districts, free elementary education, compulsory attendance ([and] truancy officers), [the] streaming of education into elementary, secondary and [the] collegiate…

Part 2 of 3

…and the creation of separate and segregated schools.

Ryerson at first did not believe that girls needed education beyond elementary school. Their roles in society were clearly defined by social conventions, such as keeping house, raising families and engaging in other 'acceptable' female activities.

While Ryerson’s greatest achievement was his leading role in the development of Ontario’s public education system, there was a darker side to his work in education. When reading or studying history, one has to be mindful and appreciative of the societal attitudes and values as experienced through the eyes of those who lived it. Facts are facts and don’t change, but choices of facts and interpretations do.

Ryerson’s recommendation of equality in education for all students in Canada West did not really include 'all' equally. The creation of residential schools was part of a broader 19th-century federal government policy of assimilating Indigenous people into the mainstream Canadian culture. The Bagot Commission Report (1842-44) recommended the separation and isolation of Indigenous children from their parents and the reserves. [They were] to be sent to boarding schools to learn 'Anglicized' Canadian culture. This was touted as the best way to force Indigenous people from their old ways of life [into becoming] 'proper' Canadian citizens.

Ryerson was asked to make recommendations to the government about this policy. In justifying his position, he explained in his report: "It is a fact established by numerous experiments, that the North American Indian cannot be civilized or preserved in a state of civilization (including habits of industry and sobriety) except in connection with, if not by the influence of, not only religious instruction and sentiment but of religious feelings. Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions.” Ryerson was not actively involved in the formulation of the policy, but his recommendations became an important part of the policy’s framework.

Although residential or industrial schools had existed in some form or other since the French period of early Canadian history, the federal Department of the Interior introduced the official ‘residential school’ program in 1880 under the Indian Act. The Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs under Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, who, at the time, was also Minister of the Interior, supervised the program. Over the years, the program deteriorated and finally closed [in] 1996, because of the exposure of a long history of serious abuse in the administration of these schools.

Meanwhile, ‘segregated’ schools could be legally established in Canada West. The law actually stated that 12 groups of citizens could petition to set up a school. 'Blacks' in Southern Ontario were encouraged by 'White' communities to go this route and set up their own schools. Ryerson favoured this direction of policy. He said that in some places, "prejudices and feelings are stronger than law." Some Southern Ontario courts denied 'Black' students access to ‘White’ schools and also forbade teachers from attempting to integrate their classrooms on the pain of a fine or dismissal.

Part 3 of 3

Current generations should not be held responsible for the sins of previous generations, unless they perpetuate them. Although historical facts cannot be changed, it is the responsibility of later generations to address the misdeeds of their forebearers by means of reform. In the past decade or so, serious attempts have been [made] to address this 'dark' part of Canadian history. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized to Indigenous Canadians for past transgressions on behalf of the federal government. Great strides in public forums have begun with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 2008, and issuing a report in 2015. Provincial education departments and school boards have been revising curricula to include all Canadians. However, laws and policies do not automatically alleviate prejudice and abuse: people do. De facto prejudice and racism continue to reveal their ugly heads from time to time, even in Canada. All Canadians need to become better next-door neighbours to each other, regardless of ethnic or racial backgrounds. Diversity only adds to the richness and vitality of our culture, if only we take off our blinders and look around us.

How often do we make bad judgments because of the pressures of our value systems and the environments in which we live? Can any one of us honestly say that we don’t have a skeleton or two in our closets, even a very small one? Do we not believe in forgiveness, fairness and second chances? Our past provides us with the basis for great opportunities to create a more inclusive and just Canadian society.
CREDIT: The text above is excerpted from: Sly, Gord. (2019). Ryerson called 'father of public education in Ontario'. The Whig-Standard. August 8. License: Used with permission. URL:

Assessing Ryerson's Legacy

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Q7.1: How should we rectify the two legacies of Egerton Ryerson? Should his undeniable contributions to the development of public education in Ontario continue to be commended or should his advice to establish the residential school system negate such accolades? Give reasons for your opinion. (Actions: Post and/or Respond (Mon-Sun) | 150 - 200 words total)
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