Open main menu

Adolphus Egerton Ryerson (1803–1882) was a Canadian Methodist minister, educator, politician, and public education advocate in early Ontario. He was a prominent opponent of the closed oligarchy that ran the province, calling it the Family Compact, and is known for playing a key role in the design of the Canadian Indian residential school system.

Egerton Ryerson
Adolphus Egerton Ryerson.jpg
Portrait of Ryerson by Théophile Hamel
Adolphus Egerton Ryerson

(1803-03-24)24 March 1803
Died19 February 1882(1882-02-19) (aged 78)
  • Educator
  • minister
Known forPublic education in Ontario
  • Hannah Aikman
    (m. 1828; died 1832)
  • Mary Armstrong (m. 1833)

Early yearsEdit

Ryerson was born on 24 March 1803 in Charlotteville Township, Upper Canada, to Joseph Ryerson (1761–1854), a United Empire Loyalist, a Lieutenant in the Prince of Wales American Volunteers[1] from Passaic County, New Jersey, and Sarah Mehetable Ryerson (néé Stickney). He was one of six siblings.[citation needed]


Egerton Ryerson, from an 1880 publication

He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church at 17, and was forced to leave the home by his Anglican father. After leaving home, Ryerson worked as an usher in a London grammar school, before his father sent for him to return home. He did so and farmed for a small period of time before leaving again, this time to Hamilton to attend Gore District Grammar School. In Hamilton, he studied Latin and Greek with such fervour that he became ill with a fever that almost claimed his life. This enabled him to become a Methodist missionary or circuit rider. His first post was the York region surrounding Yonge Street. The circuit took four weeks to complete on foot or horseback, as it encompassed areas with roads in extremely poor condition. However, the experience gave Ryerson a first hand look at the life of the early pioneer.[2]

In 1826, sermons from John Strachan, Anglican Archdeacon of York, Upper Canada, were published asserting that the Anglican church was, by law, the established church of Upper Canada. Methodists were singled out as American and therefore disloyal. Money was requested of the crown to allow the Anglican church to maintain ties to Great Britain. As Ryerson was the son of a Loyalist, this was an abomination.[2] He emerged as Episcopal Methodism's most articulate defender in the public sphere by publishing articles (at first anonymously) and later books that argued against the views of Methodism's chief rival John Strachan and other members of the powerful Family Compact.

Ryerson was also elected (by one vote) to serve as the founding editor of Canadian Methodism's weekly denominational newspaper, the Christian Guardian, established in York, Upper Canada, in 1829 and which was also Canada's first religious newspaper.[3] Ryerson used the paper to argue for the rights of Methodists in the province and, later, to help convince rank-and-file Methodists that a merger with British Wesleyans (effected in 1833[4]) was in their best interest. Ryerson was castigated by the reformist press at that time for apparently abandoning the cause of reform and becoming, at least as far as they were concerned, a Tory. Ryerson resigned the editorship in 1835 only to assume it again at his brother John's urging from 1838 to 1840. In 1840 Ryerson allowed his name to stand for re-election one last time but was soundly defeated by a vote of 50 to 1 in favour of his co-religionist Jonathan Scott.


In April 1831, Ryerson wrote in The Christian Guardian newspaper,

On the importance of education generally we may remark, it is as necessary as the light – it should be as common as water and as free as air. Education among the people is the best security of a good government and constitutional liberty; it yields a steady, unbending support to the former, and effectually protects the latter... The first object of a wise government should be the education of the people...Partial knowledge is better than total ignorance. If total ignorance be a bad and dangerous thing, every degree of knowledge lessens both the evil and the danger.[2]

This quote is a fore-telling of Ryerson's contribution to education in Upper Canada.

A stained glass window honours Ryerson at Central United Church in Weston, where he served in 1825

"Ryerson helped found the Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg in the 1830s. When it was incorporated in 1841 under the name Victoria College Ryerson assumed the presidency. Victoria continues to exist as part of the University of Toronto. Ryerson also fought for many secularization reforms, to keep power and influence away from any one church, particularly the Church of England in Upper Canada which had pretensions to establishment. His advocacy of Methodism contributed to the eventual sale of the Clergy Reserves—large tracts of land that had been set aside for the "maintenance of the Protestant clergy" under the Constitutional Act of 1791. "In honour of his achievements on behalf of the Methodist Church, Egerton Ryerson received a Doctor of Divinity degree from the Wesleyan University in Connecticut and served as President of the Church in Canada from 1874 to 1878."[5]

Such secularization also led to the widening of the school system into public hands. Governor General Sir Charles Metcalfe asked him to become Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844. It is in this role that Ryerson made his historical mark.

Ryerson's also played a part in the implementation of the Canadian residential school system. It was his study of Native education[6] commissioned in 1847 by the Assistant Superintendent General of Indian Affairs that would become the model upon which residential schools were built.[citation needed]

The Normal School at St. James Square was founded in Toronto in 1847, and became the province's foremost teacher's academy. It also housed the Department of Education as well as the Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts, which became the Royal Ontario Museum. The school operated by the Ontario Society of Artists at the Normal School would become the Ontario College of Art & Design. An agricultural laboratory on the site led to the later founding of the Ontario Agricultural College and the University of Guelph. St. James Square went through various other educational uses before it eventually became part of Ryerson University.

He was also a writer, farmer, and sportsman. He retired in 1876 and died on 19 February 1882 having left an indelible mark on Canada's education system. He is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.

Ryerson University (Toronto), Ryerson Press (McGraw-Hill Ryerson), and the Township of Ryerson in the Parry Sound District, Ontario, were named after him,[7] as well as the small park, Ryerson Park, in the city of Owen Sound, at the northeast corner of 8th Street East and 5th Avenue East. There is also an intersection of two small streets in Toronto, Egerton Lane and Ryerson Avenue, between Spadina and Bathurst north of Queen Street West.


Common School Bill of 1846Edit

Ryerson's study of educational systems elsewhere in the Western world led to three school acts, which would revolutionize education in Canada. His major innovations included libraries in every school, an educational journal and professional development conventions for teachers, a central textbook press using Canadian authors, and securing land grants for universities.

Superintendent of Schools for Upper CanadaEdit

Ryerson observed that previous educational legislation, most notably the Common School Act of 1843, was ineffective due to the limited powers of authority of the Superintendent of Schools. By comparing the office of the Superintendent to a corresponding office in New York State, namely the "State Superintendent", he noted that the 1843 Act allowed the Superintendent to draw up rules and responsibilities but no one was required to follow them.[8] In his draft of the bill, he included several responsibilities of the Superintendent for Upper Canada: apportioning Legislature funds among the twenty district councils (in existence at that point in time), discouragement of unsuitable texts for classroom and school library usage (no common texts were the norm), provide direction for normal schools, prepare recommended plans for school houses and school libraries, dissemination of information, and annual reporting to the Governor General. This considerably expanded the role of Superintendent and placed significantly more responsibility upon the office.

Further, he established the first General Board of Education (the one established in 1823 was by order of the Lieutenant Governor not by legislation). The board consisted of the Superintendent and six other members nominated by the Governor General.[2]

District superintendentsEdit

The bill provided provision for a new office, that of the District Superintendent. Ryerson recommended, although it did not become part of the legislation that followed from the 1846 bill, that as a savings measure the offices of Clerk of the District and District Superintendent be combined.[8]

The District Superintendents became important civil servants, apportioning District School Funds in proportion of the number of students, teacher payment, visit all schools in their district; reporting on progress, advising teachers on school management, examining teachers' qualifications, revoking unqualified teachers, and preventing the use of unauthorized textbooks.[2]

Common textbooksEdit

Ryerson advocated for uniform school textbooks across Upper Canada. Again, benchmarking the New York system, he noted that an Act passed in 1843 provided authority to the State Superintendent of Schools and county superintendents to reject any book in a school library. That system utilized University Regents to create a list of acceptable texts from which the schools purchased books. Ryerson did not propose absolute authority on book selection, rather, recommended that the Board of Education "make out a list of School Text Books, in each branch of learning that they would recommend, and another list they would not permit leaving Trustees to select from these lists."[8]

Free schoolsEdit

With the intent of providing education for all children, Ryerson began lobbying for the idea of free schools in 1846. His convictions on the matter were strengthened after studying systems of education in New York State and Massachusetts where financial provision for education was a cardinal one. Proving his point that education was a necessity, he was able to show, for example, in Toronto alone, less than half of the 4,450 children in the city were regular school attendees.[2]

In his Circular to the County Municipalities, in 1846, he argued the following:

"The basis of this only true system of universal Education is two fold":

1. that every inhabitant of a Country is bound to contribute to the support of its Public Institutions, according to the property which he acquires, or enjoys, under the Government of the Country.

2. That every child born, or brought up in the Country, has a right to that education which will fit him for the duties of a useful citizen of the Country, and is not to be deprived of it, on account of the inability, or poverty, of his parents, or guardians."

Among other noble intentions, he was determined to provide education to those less privileged, as a means of improving the opportunities of all; or as he so eloquently described it as the "only effectual remedy for the pernicious and pauperizing system which is at present. Many children are now kept from school on the alleged grounds of parental poverty." Ryerson was persuasive in his arguments such that principle for free education, in a permission form, was embodied into the School Law of 1850. Subsequent debate followed until 1871 when free school provision was included in the Comprehensive School Act of 1871.[9]

Common School Bill of 1850Edit

The Common School Act updated 1847 legislation creating school boards across Canada West. It required that municipalities meet the funding needs stated by their local school board and allows for schools to be paid for through provincial and municipal funds alone, allowing individual boards to eliminate school fees but not making this compulsory. The Act also allowed for the creation of separate schools leading to provincially funded Catholic schools and to racially segregated schools.[10]

The School Act of 1871Edit

The School Act makes elementary education compulsory and free up to age 12.[10] The Act also created two streams of secondary education: high schools, the lower stream, and collegiate institutes, the higher stream. Extra funding was provided for collegiate institutes “with a daily average attendance of sixty boys studying Latin and Greek under a minimum of four masters.”[11]

Ryerson and Girls' EducationEdit

While celebrated for achievements in winning free elementary education, Ryerson's opposition to schooling for girls is less well-known. While Ryerson did not oppose female heads of household voting in school board elections, he did not support the education of women as a class beyond the elementary level due to a belief that their role was to be wives and mothers.[12] He ended co-education instruction at the Upper Canada Academy and opposed the participation of girls at grammar schools in the province.[13] He also insisted on the separation of boys and girls in common schools.

Ryerson and residential schoolsEdit

Egerton Ryerson is recognized as a key architect in the design of the Canadian Indian residential school system. His expert advice was sought by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1847 and those recommendations for Aboriginal schools were appended to the first publication in 1898 of "Statistics Respecting Residential Schools" since the Indian Act (1876); "Agriculture being the chief interest, and probably the most suitable employment of the civilized Indians, I think the great object of industrial schools should be to fit the pupils for becoming working farmers and agricultural labourers, fortified of course by Christian principles, feelings and habits."[14] Ryerson's argument that "Indians should be schooled in separate, denominational, boarding, English-only and agriculturally-oriented (industrial) institutions"[15]:16 was the framework used Canada's residential school system.[16] Ryerson University's Aboriginal Education Council issued a statement regarding this involvement in 2010 calling for the university to acknowledge Ryerson's role in the conceptualization of residential schools and to create an environment welcoming to Aboriginal peoples as part of the truth and reconciliation process.[17] Senator Murray Sinclair has declared that Ryerson University has shown leadership in its commitment to equity and diversity and is clearly dedicated to righting the wrongs of the past. Sinclair lauded the university for its response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action.[18]

On June 25, 2018 there was an official installation of a plaque that contextualizes and acknowledges Egerton Ryerson's involvement in the history of residential schools beside the statue of his likeness on Ryerson University campus. The plaque contains the following text:

"This plaque serves as a reminder of Ryerson University's commitment to moving forward in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. Egerton Ryerson is widely known for his contributions to Ontario's public educational system. As Chief Superintendent of Education, Ryerson's recommendations were instrumental in the design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported that children in the schools were subjected to unthinkable abuse and neglect, to medical experimentation, punishment for the practice of cultures or languages and death. The aim of the Residential School System was cultural genocide.”

Beneath this text are the following two quotes:

“Let us put our minds together to see what kind of lives we can create for our children” – Chief Sitting Bull

“For the child taken, for the parent left behind” – Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada[19]


Ryerson was married twice and had several children:

  • Charles Egerton Ryerson (July 5, 1847 – June 4, 1909) - secretary-treasurer and assistant librarian of Toronto; his children with Emily Eliza Beatty (1850- ) were:
    • Egerton Ryerson (1876- ), a missionary priest in Japan
    • Edward Stanley Ryerson (1879–1963)
    • Mary Ella Ryerson (1882- )
    • Isabel Louise Ryerson (1884- )
    • John Egerton Ryerson (1887-1916)
  • Sophie Ryerson Harris

Chris Ryerson, an engineer from Ottawa, is a descendant of Ryerson and a Ryerson University graduate.[20]

In his first attempt in inventing shampoo, Egerton Ryerson put too much lead in the ingredients and died of lead poisoning when it got into his eyes. A common mistake however, as in the 1880's people easily got confused with tablespoons and teaspoons.


  1. ^ Ontario Historical Society (1899). Catalogue Canadian Historical Exhibition. William Briggs. p. 102.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Putman, Harold J. (1912). Egerton Ryerson and Education in Upper Canada. Toronto: William Briggs. pp. 7–10, 11, 71–72, 123–125, 125–126, 140.
  3. ^ Hopkins, J. Castell (1898). An historical sketch of Canadian literature and journalism. Toronto: Lincott. p. 221. ISBN 0665080484.
  4. ^ Victor Shepherd (2001), "The Methodist Tradition in Canada." Retrieved July 17, 2016.
  5. ^ "Egerton". Archived from the original on 2010-11-30. Retrieved 2010-11-22.
  6. ^ Ryerson, Egerton, 1803–1882; Canada. Dept of Indian Affairs. (1898-01-01), English: Indian schools in the Dominion. "Report of Dr. Ryerson on Industrial Schools, 1847": p. 73-77. (PDF), retrieved 2016-06-21
  7. ^ Ryerson Township - History of Ryerson Archived 2016-01-17 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ a b c Hodgins, John George (1899). Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada: 1846 (Volume VI: 1846 ed.). Toronto: Warwick Brothers and Rutter. pp. 72–74.
  9. ^ Hodgins, John George (1902). Documentary History of Education in Upper Canada. Toronto: L.K. Cameron Printer to the King's Most Excellent Majesty. pp. 73, 76, 81.
  10. ^ a b Hardy, Edwin Austen (1950). Cochrane, Honora M. (ed.). Centennial Story: The Board of Education for the City of Toronto 1850-1950. Toronto, ON: Thomson Nelson and Sons (Canada) Limited.
  11. ^ Gelman, Susan (1991). ""Chapter 4: The "Feminization" of the High School: Women Secondary Schoolteachers in Toronto: 1871-1930". In Prentice, Alison (ed.). Gender and Education in Ontario: An Historical Reader. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars' Press. pp. 72–73.
  12. ^ Ryerson, Egerton (1847). Annual Report 1847, Chief Superintendent of Schools. Toronto, ON. p. 6.
  13. ^ Prentice, Alison (2004). The School Promoters: Education and Social Class in Mid-Nineteenth Century Upper Canada. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802086921.
  14. ^ Egerton, Ryerson (1847). "Statistics respecting Indian schools" (PDF). Department of Indian Affairs. pp. 73–77.
  15. ^ Carney, Robert (1995). "Aboriginal Residential Schools Before Confederation: The Early Experience1" (PDF). Historical Studies. 61: 13–40. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  16. ^ "A timeline of residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission". CBC. 16 May 2008. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  17. ^ "Egerton Ryerson, the Residential School System and Truth and Reconciliation" (PDF). Ryerson University’s Aboriginal Education Council. August 2010. Retrieved 27 June 2016.
  18. ^ Brown, Louise (May 19, 2016). "Murray Sinclair lauds Ryerson University for championing equity". The Toronto Star. Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  19. ^ Sloan, Will (July 10, 2018). "Plaque unveiling a step towards truth and reconciliation". Retrieved August 22, 2018.
  20. ^

Further readingEdit

  • French, Goldwin. Parsons & Politics. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1962.
  • Thomas, Clara. Ryerson of Upper Canada. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1969.
  • Westfall, William. Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario. Kingston: McGill-Queen's UP, 1989.
  • Brown, Jennifer S. H. (ed.), Elizabeth Bingham Young, E. Ryerson Young. "Mission Life in Cree-Ojibwe Country: Memories of a Mother and Son." Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014.

External linksEdit