This past Saturday, activists from Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) engaged in what Eyeopener reporter Natalie Michie described as “art-based action that called for defunding the police” on the campus of Ryerson University (where I am a contract lecturer in the MFA Documentary Media program). Specifically, they “poured pink paint on [a statue of the university’s namesake Egerton Ryerson] and put up a sign that read ‘Tear down monuments that represent slavery, colonialism and violence.'”
Along with Ryerson’s statue, protesters also tagged the John A. Macdonald statue at Queen’s Park and the statue of King Edward VII located behind the legislative building.
These statues were targeted because they immortalize historical figures who contributed to the oppression of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour in Canada.
King Edward VII was a British monarch in the colonial era and his statue serves as a reminder of Canada’s violent colonial past.
Both John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson had a significant role in the creation of Canada’s residential school system, which targeted Indigenous children and violently removed them from their communities in an effort to assimilate them into colonial Euro-Canadian culture.
Children endured physical, mental and sexual abuse in residential schools and were punished for speaking their language and practicing traditions or ceremonies from their communities.
Residential schools in Canada operated between the 1870s and the 1990s and have resulted in intergenerational trauma that impacts Indigenous communities to this day.
The defacing of the three statues comes after worldwide protests demanding the removal of statues and symbols that enshrine systemic racism.
The call to remove the Egerton Ryerson statue has been ongoing for years within the Ryerson community, but the school has never officially agreed to remove the statue or change the name of the university.
Three protestors were subsequently arrested and held by the Toronto police for hours. “What followed,” Michie explains, “was a rally outside of 52 Division Toronto Police Station by protesters demanding the release of those arrested.” Though they were eventually released, “the protesters have been charged with three counts of mischief each and are due to appear in court September 30.”
In response, Artists for Black Lives has posted “An Open Letter in Support of Black Lives Matter-Toronto, the Arrestees, and Artists.” It states in part:
Artistic interventions on monuments have a long and well-established history. Monuments are not symbols of history but rather, symbols of intentional emphasis. Artistic responses to the existence of these monuments is both protected political speech and a recognized artistic practice.
We affirm our position that these monuments honour legacies of racial violence, segregation and genocide, and that their presence in public space emphasizes that the lives and histories of Black and Indigenous people are not valued in spaces that we all share. These monuments are physical embodiments of state-sanctioned systems of oppression and contribute to the ongoing endangerment, imprisonment and murder of Black and Indigenous people.
These monuments must be removed. We affirm that the action by Black Lives Matter Toronto and their allies on Saturday was an artistic intervention to bring attention to and disrupt these narratives of white supremacy. There is no place for these monuments in our society and criminalizing those that attend protests calling for their removal and the defunding of police reinforces the deep-rooted anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in the Toronto Police force.
Together with BLMTO we demand:
- removal of these monuments
- an end to criminalizing of peaceful protest and an end to the continued surveillance of BLMTO
- all charges be dropped against those detained in connection with the intervention: Jenna Reid, Danielle Smith, and Daniel Gooch
- an immediate reduction of the existing $1.1 billion Toronto police budget by a minimum of 50% (as opposed to the 10% cut proposed by Toronto city councillors)
- the establishment of Black and Indigenous-led, Mad- and disability-informed mental health crisis support and response teams
You can read the rest of the letter here. I have joined over 1,000 others in signing on to it, and encourage you to add your name as well if you consider yourself part of the Toronto arts community.
In addition, I’ve also joined many fellow faculty, alumni, and others in signing onto another open letter, this one coming from within the Ryerson community. It calls for President Mohamed Lachemi to do several things, including “release a public statement calling on the police and Crown Attorney to drop any charges associated with the artistic protest of the Ryerson statue” and, of course, remove the statue. It continues:
Anger and frustration due to the University’s refusal to remove the statue has been building in our community for some time. In June of this year, almost 10,000 people signed a petition by a Ryerson student calling for the statue to be taken down. These community members, Indigenous students, faculty and staff, must finally be heard. Our concerns must be recognized and addressed. The time for debate is over.
If you’re a member of the Ryerson community, I hope you’ll add your name to this open letter too. You can read the whole thing and sign it here.
#BlackLives Matter #BLM