University College and Residential Schools: An Exploration Inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Professor John Marshall
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When Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie spoke last August about “people way up North” and “what’s going on up there,” he helped draw attention to the long work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) and the longer history of residential schools in Canada.  Though he faced some criticism for the habitual language of distance, Downie knows better and his work shows it. 


Part of the truth that is essential to any possibility of reconciliation is understanding what went on “here”—wherever we are in Canada. My teaching this year focused on method and theory in the study of religion and I ended both of my graduate seminars with readings from the summary report of the TRC and with some reflection on the very building—University College—in which I was teaching and what went on here.  Understanding the relation of UC to Canada’s Indigenous communities is a large task, larger than I can communicate in a short article, and much larger than my skills can address, but this article presents a few brief soundings into University College’s relation to Indigenous communities and residential schools.  It is only a beginning.


Our beloved building was, from its beginnings, in part a reaction to denominational and secularist quarrels over how to spend the money from land endowments known as “clergy reserves.”  As British colonial government gathered more and more land, a portion of it was reserved for the support of the clergy and large portions of that were designated for the support of education in the province.  In some ways, UC is large so that funds raised from land designated for clergy support and specifically education would find material form that denominations could no longer squabble over.  This land, these reserves, are all in the long run land acquired through the mixture of treaty, conquest, possession, and claim that constituted the colonial settlement of British North America.  We cannot forget this.


Once UC was up and running in the late nineteenth century, it produced scholars, leaders, and citizens for the Dominion of Canada.  University College was also a feeder for the nascent graduate and professional programs of the province.  Close relations with both the medical school of the University of Toronto and with the evangelical, Anglican Wycliffe College were part of the ethos of the College in its first seventy years.  Three figures illustrate the fruit of those relations with regard to residential schools: Isaac Stringer (BA 1891 UC), Cecil Harcourt (BA 1915 UC), and Peter Henderson Bryce (BA 1876 UC).


Isaac Stringer was the recording secretary of the UC Literary and Athletic Society (UC Lit) in 1890-91, and went on to study at Wycliffe College.  At Wycliffe, Stringer volunteered for mission to the western Arctic and laboured for the rest of his life among the people he and others then called Eskimos, becoming eventually bishop of the Yukon.  He is famous—commemorated in folk songs, glowing biographies, websites, and apparently a film in production on his harrowing journeys in the Arctic.   On the eightieth anniversary of the UC Lit, written up in the Undergraduate Magazine, Stringer was included in a short list of a dozen  influential alumni including prime ministers Arthur Meighen (BA 1896 UC) and MacKenzie King (BA 1895 UC), and the premier Howard Ferguson (BA 1891 UC).  Stringer was also the founder of Shingle Point in the high Arctic, a residential school with endemic problems of sanitation and crippling outbreaks of influenza. The Shingle Point school began as a primitive facility and never grew far beyond that state.


Cecil Harcourt went to Jarvis Collegiate, next to UC, and then Wycliffe College to prepare for the Anglican ministry.  Even while at UC he played for the Wycliffe rugby team, knowing that Wycliffe was his destination and that UC was the proper preparation.  University College’s crest remains fixed in stained glass in Wycliffe’s Leonard Library, attesting to the well worn path from one College to another.  Harcourt followed Alfred Vale (BA 1905 UC) as principal of the Hay River residential school on the shores of Great Slave Lake, one of the key islands in the Anglican northwest archipelago of residential schools.


Peter Henderson Bryce started at UC and finished with a medical degree from U of T.   He was a public servant and an advocate of public health employed by the federal department of the interior.  His 1907 report was sharply critical of health conditions in residential schools, documenting shockingly high annual mortality rates from tuberculosis.  The report was largely suppressed, Bryce’s calls for action ignored, and his research funding terminated.  After his retirement, Bryce published an account based on his research indicting the government of Canada for the deplorable conditions in residential schools. The University of Toronto honours Bryce today in the name of the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, and he was named one of UC’s Alumni of Influence in 2015.


These are simply quick sketches of three figures who brought their formation at UC to bear on the project of residential schools.  My treatment is superficial, and it will take more work, more luck, and more skill to look further into their intentions and assumptions with regard to First Nations in Canada.  It is unlikely that they would fully model a relationship that we would now conceive as just and fair. 


Many other topics deserve deeper scrutiny—rigorous, unflinching, and yet not without sympathy for the alterity that distance entails: early native students, the research of former UC and U of T president Sir Daniel Wilson into “prehistoric man,” teaching at UC on First Nations in Canada, artifacts owned by the College, the paths of our recent and current Indigenous students, the specific history of the land on which we live and work.  Committing to learn about these crucial topics is a task that lies before us, and one to which I anticipate our commitment.


John Marshall is the Vice-Principal of University College and an Associate Professor in the Department for the Study of Religion.