Adolphus Egerton Ryerson was born into a prominent United Empire Loyalist family in 1803. His father, Joseph Ryerson, was an officer in the American Revolution who left for Canada and eventually settled as a half-pay officer near Vittoria, Upper Canada, in the 1790s. During the War of 1812, Joseph fought against the Americans, as did his three oldest sons. While Egerton was too young to serve, he grew up in an environment deeply loyal to Great Britain. He attended the London District Grammar School in Vittoria.
While Egerton Ryerson’s father, Joseph, belonged to the Anglican Church, his mother, Mehetable Stickney Ryerson, had Methodist inclinations. (Although Methodism was originally a movement within the Anglican Church, it became a separate church in 1795.) Egerton absorbed his mother’s Methodist sympathies, which were reinforced by the teachings of travelling Methodist missionaries also known as circuit riders, who preached evangelical Christianity in Norfolk County. Ryerson’s mother joined the Methodist Church in 1816, along with two of his brothers, to the disappointment of his Anglican father. Several years later, when Ryerson applied for membership in his local Methodist society at age 18, his disapproving father insisted that he leave home. For two years (1821–23), Ryerson worked as an assistant to his brother George, schoolmaster at the London District Grammar School. He returned home for a short time in 1823 before leaving for Hamilton to attend the Gore District Grammar School to study law.
After recovering from a severe illness that interrupted his studies, Ryerson’s commitment to the Methodist faith grew. In 1825, he became a Methodist missionary, riding on horseback on the York and Yonge Street circuits and then living as a missionary at the Credit River (now Mississauga). There, he worked and lived alongside Ojibwa people, learned to speak the language, and became a respected teacher. He befriended Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), also known as Peter Jones, the first Indigenous Methodist missionary. In 1826, at a council meeting, Ryerson received the Ojibwa name Cheechock (Bird on a Wing).
Ryerson first came to prominence in 1826 when he spearheaded an attack on the assumptions and prerogatives of the Church of England, which claimed to be the official church of the colony and exclusive beneficiary of the Clergy Reserves(a portion of lands set aside for the support of Protestant clergy by the Constitutional Act of 1791). Ryerson published a counter-attack to an argument by Anglican bishop John Strachan that Methodists were pro-American and therefore disloyal to Britain. Ryerson thus emerged as a leading voice for the Methodist Church. In 1827, Ryerson was fully ordained as a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He emerged as the leading Methodist spokesman and a major figure in the Reform cause for religious freedom. He was elected as the first editor of the Methodist newspaper, The Christian Guardian. Ryerson used the press to promote Methodism and continued as an influential political adviser for the rest of his life. Between 1874 and 1878, he served as president of the Methodist Church of Canada.
Ryerson based his long and active public career on a consistent yet often misunderstood political outlook. He blended a staunch loyalty to British-Canadian institutions and a conservative mistrust of radical philosophy with a liberal optimism in humankind, adding a deep and abiding religious commitment.
During his early career, when politics in Upper Canada were polarized by Tory and Reform controversy, Ryerson was condemned for not belonging neatly to either camp. Ryerson opposed the Family Compact (which was led by Anglican bishop John Strachan and Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson) and sympathized early on with William Lyon Mackenzie’s ideals of civil equality, including the secularization of the Clergy Reserves.
In the mid-1830s, however, Ryerson publically criticized the Reform movement because he believed it had become too radical. He also used his influence to oppose Mackenzie's violent methods in the rebellion of 1837. During the 1840s he continued his active role in politics, and, much to the anger of his Reform allies and many Methodists, supported Governor Charles Metcalfe against Reformers Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in 1844. He appeared to have joined the Tories, whom he had opposed for nearly 20 years. Considered for a role in Metcalfe’s administration, he was ultimately offered the role of superintendent of education for Canada West. He fitted naturally into the moderate, Liberal-Conservative alliance that predominated after the mid-1850s and in fact helped create its ideological framework through the educational system he fostered.
In 1844, Ryerson was appointed superintendent of education for Canada West, continuing in this office until retiring in 1876. In 1844 and 1845, he toured Europe to study different school systems, and based on his findings he authored his Report on a system of public elementary instruction for Upper Canada (1846). In this report, he made recommendations for improvements to the educational system, many of which were adopted in the first two Common Schools Acts (1846, 1850).
Ryerson believed that poverty should not be a roadblock to education and that Canada West should have a free and compulsory public education system. He also believed that schools should teach Christian morals in order to improve the individual and help society progress. This new educational system, the forerunner of Ontario’s current school system, would be overseen by the chief superintendent of schools, who would set common standards across Canada West. Ryerson recommended an efficient system of school inspections to maintain these standards. He also recommended standard textbooks across the system and the creation of an Educational Depository, which supplied textbooks and educational material to schools at affordable prices. A Journal of Education was created to help keep teachers up to date. Ryerson was one of the founders of the Provincial Normal School (1847), the first teacher’s college in Toronto, which later became the Toronto Teachers’ College and then the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Culminating in the Common Schools Act of 1871, which established free and compulsory schooling, Ontario gained a new, accessible primary and secondary school system based on these principles.
Ryerson was also involved in post-secondary education, promoting denominational universities as the pinnacle of the educational process. He trusted that through religion and education, both individual and society could be improved. Ryerson was a driving force behind the Methodist Church’s establishment of Upper Canada Academy in 1832 in Cobourg. In 1841, it became a university and was renamed Victoria College. The following year, Ryerson was appointed principal. Ryerson taught at the college and was remembered by former students as an intelligent, exacting and occasionally severe teacher. By 1892, ten years after Ryerson’s death, Victoria College was integrated into the University of Toronto and the campus moved to Toronto.
During his long career in education, Ryerson wrote numerous pamphlets and texts, as well as an autobiography and several works on the history of the province. He also served as editor of the Journal of Education for Upper Canada between 1848 and 1875.
While advocating for free and compulsory education, Ryerson supported different systems for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Ryerson supported the system of educating Indigenous students separately and converting them to Christianity, in order to assimilate children into Euro-Canadian culture. Such schools had existed in New France since the 17th century, while the first residential school in Upper Canada began operating in 1831 in Brantford. Ryerson agreed with the findings of the Bagot Commission Report (1842–44), which recommended manual labour schools in which Indigenous children were separated from their parents in order to achieve assimilation.
In 1847, the Indian Affairs Branch of the government asked Ryerson to author a report on the best methods of operating residential schools as part of a larger document entitled Statistics Respecting 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. The schools would train students to be farmers and provide an education on par with common schools. Previously called manual labour schools, Ryerson recommended renaming the institutions “industrial schools,” which encouraged both physical and mental industry. Students were to be trained in agriculture for two to three hours each day (eight to 12 during the summer months) and spend the rest of the day studying academic subjects, including history, geography, writing, music, book-keeping and agricultural chemistry. Like many of his contemporaries, Ryerson believed that religious instruction was necessary to assimilate Indigenous children and proposed that the schools be run by religious organizations and overseen by the government. He based his proposal on the Hofwyl School for the Poor in Switzerland, which he had visited in 1845. Although Ryerson did not invent the idea of residential schools, his recommendations influenced decisions made in the development of Canada’s devastating residential school system.
Controversy and Legacy
Since the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008, dialogue has opened up around Ryerson’s role in providing the blueprints for residential schools in Canada. The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Volume 1, Part 1 outlines Ryerson’s influence on the structure of the residential school system. Ryerson University, named after Egerton when it opened as the Ryerson Institute of Technology in 1948, published a statement in 2010 acknowledging his role in shaping the concept of the residential school system and the system’s devastating impact on Indigenous people. On 1 July 2017, the students’ union called for changing the university’s name and removing the on-campus statue of Egerton Ryerson as part of its Canada 150 demands. The university’s stance had up to that point been to recognize Ryerson’s pioneering role in the public education system, while acknowledging his contributions to the abusive system of residential schools, a harmful error made while in a position of authority.
More positively, Ryerson left his mark on many other cultural institutions. In 1829, he founded the Methodist Book Room, which later became Ryerson Press and was eventually sold to American publisher McGraw-Hill in 1970. The Normal School buildings at St. James Square in Toronto housed not only the training program for teachers but also the Department of Education and cultural displays for the public. These were early prototypes for the many publicly supported museums and galleries that exist across Ontario today. This included the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts (established 1857), Canada’s first publically funded museum, which started its collection through Ryerson’s trips to Europe in the 1850s; after Confederation it became the Ontario Provincial Museum and later the Royal Ontario Museum. The St. James buildings also included an arboretum and agricultural college, which led to the development of the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. The art school established on the property later became the Ontario College of Art and Design University.
At times arrogant and strong-willed, Ryerson never backed away from controversy, combining strong administrative talents, tireless energy and an anti-partisan spirit heavily driven by what he believed was best for his province.
Marriages and Personal Life
In 1828, Ryerson married Hannah Aikman in Hamilton. She died in 1832, soon after the birth of their second child. For a time, family members helped to care for the children, John and Lucilla Hannah. John died of dysentery in 1835 at age six, and Lucilla died of consumption in 1849 at age 17. In 1833, Ryerson married Mary Armstrong in York (Toronto). Together they had two children, Sophia in 1837 and Charles Egerton in 1847.