Adolphus Egerton Ryerson was born on March 24, 1803 into a prominent loyalist family in Charlotteville, Norfolk County, in what is now southwestern Ontario. His father, Joseph Ryerson, served on the British side in the American Revolutionary War and also participated, along with his three eldest sons, in the War of 1812. Egerton’s youth prevented him from following in their footsteps and he concentrated instead on his studies –he was an avid reader of the classics– and on a deeply religious training fostered by his father’s Anglican conservatism and his mother’s Methodist radicalism. Forced to chose between the two, he converted to Methodism (much to his father’s chagrin) and left the family homestead at the age of 18.
To say that Egerton Ryerson was an important figure in the development of Methodism and the promotion of religious freedom in nineteenth-century Canada would be a severe understatement. Ryerson started out as a saddle-bag preacher and itinerant minister who rode daily, on horse-back, throughout the Church’s Niagara circuit, delivering countless sermons and even living and working with the Ojibway Indians of the Credit River settlement as a missionary. In 1829, as an increasingly vocal proponent of the rights of Methodists and other non-conformist religious groups, he helped found the influential newspaper, the Christian Guardian, and served as its intermittent editor for eleven years.
Ryerson’s growing prominence in the Methodist community led to his appointment as chief negotiator for his Church in Upper Canada and to his securing a Royal Charter and funding for the establishment of the Upper Canada Academy in Cobourg, an alternative to the Anglican-supported Upper Canada College. The Academy became a University in 1841, with Egerton Ryerson as its principal, and was renamed Victoria College, the forerunner of its current namesake at the University of Toronto. Ryerson also founded the Methodist Book Concern, which later became the Ryerson Press. 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.
As politics and religion were inextricably linked in the 19th Century, it is not surprising that Egerton Ryerson played an equally significant and active role on the Canadian political scene, especially with regard to the Clergy Reserves, which had been set aside by the Constitutional Act of 1791 and were then in the exclusive and powerful hands of the Church of England. Ryerson fought for the secularization of the Reserves and for other reforms, alongside such figures as William Lyon Mackenzie. He opposed Mackenzie’s radical philosophy and violent methods, however, and emerged as a lifelong moderate and non-partisan voice in the struggle for equality of opportunity within the confines of the law.
A critical issue in the call to secularize the Reserves was the need to reform education and make good schooling accessible to all and not just the privileged few. Having gained a reputation as a man of proven political wisdom and administrative skill, Egerton Ryerson was asked by Governor-General Sir Charles Metcalfe to become Chief Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada in 1844. It is in this realm that Ryerson made his greatest impact and contribution.
Ryerson’s first goal was to draft a blueprint for the establishment of a new educational system for Upper Canada. After an extensive study of models in Europe and the United States, he submitted a landmark report which culminated in the passing, in 1846, of the first of three School Acts which would revolutionize education in Canada and lay the groundwork for the school system as we know it today.
The changes and innovations were numerous and far-reaching. The overall control of the system, for example, was placed in the hands of the Chief Superintendent who: set standards for the curriculum; supervised the training, inspection and examination of teachers; and oversaw the selection and distribution of textbooks, through a central depository and press plant which encouraged the publication of works by home-grown authors. Libraries were organized in every school. The respected Journal of Education was published to keep teachers abreast of educational developments, while two days were set aside annually in every district for professional conventions. In the late 1840s, boards of trustees were established to raise money, supply teachers and textbooks and report on a regular basis to district superintendents. And, between 1850 and 1860, government land grants were secured for all outlying universities, thus making it possible for these institutions to grow and fulfill their missions.
Perhaps Egerton Ryerson’s most visible achievement was the erection of the Normal School at St. James Square in Toronto in 1852, with its attendant model schools for the in-class training of teachers. In addition to the Normal and Model schools, the buildings housed the Department of Education and served to introduce the citizens of Ontario to a host of artistic, cultural and scientific activities which laid the foundation for publicly-supported museums, art galleries and other institutions in this country.
The Museum of Natural History and Fine Arts, established within the confines of the Normal School buildings in 1857, was the first publicly-funded museum in Canada. Ryerson developed its collections by acquiring artwork, statuary and scientific apparatus during several trips to Europe in the 1850s. After Confederation, the museum became the Ontario Provincial Museum, the forerunner of today’s Royal Ontario Museum. Activity in the field of art was by no means limited to collecting, as an art school was also established, in cooperation with the Ontario Society of Artists. The School later became the Toronto School of Art, the predecessor to the Ontario College of Art.
The least known, yet perhaps most unusual, facet of learning at St. James Square centered around an arboretum and one of the earliest laboratories in agricultural experimentation in Canada. The early experiments conducted on the Normal School grounds served to promote the need for continued research in the fields of botany and horticulture and led to the development of the Ontario Agricultural College and the University of Guelph.
In addition to playing an influential role in the fields of politics, religion, education and the arts and sciences, Egerton Ryerson proved, on the personal side, to be somewhat of a Renaissance man who exhibited diverse and versatile talents. On the one hand, he was a scholar and prolific writer, who wrote on subjects as disparate as history and agriculture. On the other, he had a practical side and enjoyed working with his hands: he tilled the fields as a missionary; he built his own boat; and he was an avid sportsman who had a passion for fishing and hunting. Even his philosophy of education centered on the need “to learn in order to practice.”
When Egerton Ryerson died in 1882, six years after his retirement as a public servant, Canadians mourned the loss of one of this country’s most prominent citizens. But his legacy lived on, not only in the educational system which he conceived and put into place, but on the site where his dreams became a reality — St. James Square in Toronto.
Indeed, after Ryerson’s Normal and Model schools left the Square in 1941, education of a different sort took over, with the installation of a ground-training facility for RCAF pilots during the Second World War and a Dominion-Provincial trades training program for armed services personnel and civilians in wartime industry. At the end of the war in 1945, the Toronto Training and Re-establishment Institute was created, as a joint venture by the Dominion and Provincial governments, to train ex-servicemen and women for re-entry into civilian life.
In 1948, the demands of a booming post-war economy dictated that further training of civilians was needed and the Ryerson Institute of Technology –now Ryerson University– was born. As former Ryerson professor James Peters once noted, “no name for this new institution could have been more appropriate, not because its grounds were hallowed by the work of Egerton Ryerson, not because his statue stood in front of the main building, but because Ryerson the man practiced what the Institute chose as its offering to the youth of Canada, a judicious blend of education and training.”
Claude W. Doucet, Archivist
Ryerson University June 2002
For more about Egerton Ryerson see the Egerton Ryerson section on the Ryerson History page.