Education (6-12): Current Problems

Education Institutions

July 5, 2022

BC, Fed. Govt., MB, ON

How Commonwealth universities profited from Indigenous dispossession through land grants

The Conversation – Animated by social movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter, universities today have entered a period of critical self-reflection on their histories. The renaming of campus buildings,  removal of statues and re-branding of whole universities are all evidence of this trend towards uncovering higher education’s colonial legacies. 

Yet this emphasis on campus iconography, or even on the campus itself, skirts a deeper history of universities and empire.  Most public universities founded in the 19th century — especially in what is now Canada, the United States and Aotearoa New Zealand, but also in South Africa and Australia — were large-scale landowners.

Land for endowment capital

Public universities received substantial tracts of expropriated Indigenous territory from their governments that could be leased or sold to generate endowment capital. 

Divided into plots and parcels distant from the universities themselves, these lands covered millions of acres. Financing universities through land brought these institutions into the arena of settler-Indigenous land contestation. This is the subject of my research. 

Some of this history has been excavated in the recent and influential investigative journalism project, Land-Grab Universitiescreated and led by historian Robert Lee and journalist Tristan Ahtone.

It locates the public lands, belonging to tribal nations, apportioned to U.S. states to fund universities under the Morrill Act of 1862. Almost 11 million acres would eventually come under educational stewardship, more land than exists in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined. (A million acres is roughly equal to 4,050 square kilometres.)

Land rents to fund universities

Settler societies around the world, especially those under British rule, relied upon the dispossession of Indigenous groups to fund institutions of higher learning. 

What made land-granting an attractive financial strategy for universities? First, young colonial legislatures had little available capital. Allocating land as a substitute for coin currency (specie), in the hope that it might increase in value, was pragmatic. 

Using land rents to fund universities also followed a longstanding pattern established by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge

Settler societies carried on this custom on a larger scale. As early as 1619, the British government assigned 10,000 acres to endow a “Henrico College” in Virginia. Warfare with the Powhatan Confederacy, an Indigenous alliance of Algonquian-speaking Peoples, and underpopulation ensured that this institution was short-lived. 

University of Toronto

Across British North America, later Canada, three universities collectively received at least 500,000 acres permanently and over two million acres temporarily.

Image shows one page from a leger showing  a list of geographic locations and land parcels.
Page from ‘Tabular Statement of Annual Sales of the University Lands in the various Townships comprised in the Endowment,’ from Final Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Affairs of King’s College University and Upper Canada College, 1852. (Quebec: Rollo Campbell, By Order of the Legislative Assembly, 1852)., Author provided (no reuse)

Records held by the University of Toronto show that, in 1798, the Provincial Legislature of Upper Canada set aside 549,000 acres of land — an area three times larger than the present-day Toronto — for the “maintenance of various educational establishments, including a University.” About 225,000 acres eventually went to University of Toronto’s predecessor, King’s College, in 1828. 

These land parcels spread over much of Upper Canada, although the majority of them were situated south of Georgian Bay in districts known to settlers as “Midland, Newcastle, Home, Gore and London.” 

As the contemporary Indigenous land map “Native Land Digital” acknowledges, these southern parcels fell within the traditional territories of the Mississauga Ojibwa, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Attiwonderonk (Neutral) Peoples. Indigenous Peoples have an enduring presence on these lands today. 

Other Canadian universities

A few decades later, Manitoban legislators endowed their provincial university with 150,000 acres of recently dispossessed Indigenous land. By 1891, the University of Manitoba used its own “Land Board” to manage this property. 

Image of a signed document entitled 'Manitoba University lands, Application to purchase' with a paragraph of text describing conditions of the purchase. Handwriting on the form details the name, town, lot numbers, number of acres, rate, and purchase amount.
Application to purchase Manitoba University lands in Portage la Prairie, Man. (Caitlin Harvey/University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections), Author provided (no reuse)

In British Columbia, the province’s University Endowment Act(1907) reserved up to two million acres for a body of higher learning. 

The University of British Columbia, founded in 1908, exchanged this land for 3,000 acres of more valuable, unceded Musqueam territory near Point Grey in 1920. Today, this land is a provincially run, unincorporated community named the University Endowment Lands

Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, South Africa

In the Southern Hemisphere, government officials in Aotearoa New Zealand relied on land endowments for nearly all their colonial universities. 

Most land transfer from Māori tribes to European occupiers took place between 1840 and 1890. These years were, not coincidentally, these islands’ most significant periods of development in higher education. About 500,000 acres moved from Maori communities to the eventual colleges of the University of New Zealand. As of 2019, the University of Canterbury remains one of the country’s top public landowners

Read more: Explainer: the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi

While university promoters in Australia and South Africa first relied on mineral profits (especially gold) before looking for institutional funding via land, certain universities still received significant land endowments. 

Under its Act of Incorporation in 1874, the University of Adelaide gained 50,000 acres in South Australia’s Tatiara and Wirreanda districts. Mining magnates such as Cecil Rhodes, meanwhile, offered gifts of land to young South African institutions.

Universities reshape environments

Globally, universities gained the permanent use of over 15 million acres — a landmass about triple the size of Wales — of Indigenous land by 1910. This is a conservative estimate that includes at least a million permanent acres in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand. 

Financing universities through land made these institutions no small piece of the process of Indigenous dispossession. In addition, new public universities later institutionalized branches of knowledge like agricultural science whose products, both intellectual and technological, reshaped surrounding environments.

Cover shows cows in a field and the title Intensive Dairying in New Zealand and Wisconsin.
Intellectual and technical products of university disciplines have also shaped colonial societies.(Caitlin Harvey/’Intensive Dairying in New Zealand and Wisconsin,’ by H.L. Russell & T. Macklin. University of Wisconsin, 1925.), Author provided (no reuse)

Inventions such as seed varietals and mining technology profoundly transformed landscapes. 

They also diverged from Indigenous ways of being and thinking about land, while simultaneously entrenching settlers’ relationship to the land — actions that have had lasting political and ecological legacies.

Exploring university landholding reminds us that the mechanisms sustaining empire and settler-colonial structures aren’t always obvious. In the 19th century, using land to fund universities was a fragmented, but far-reaching, pattern of institutional development. 

It’s a pattern that deserves further exploration — not only for what it might reveal about universities, but for its potential as a window into the operation of empire, colonialism and Indigenous dispossession.

September 13, 2020

Racism at USask

CBC – More than 200 people have signed an open letter demanding more respect for Indigenous knowledge and faculty in the University of Saskatchewan’s college of education. The letter follows revelations that at least nine Indigenous faculty, as well as other senior Indigenous staff, have recently departed the U of S in frustration. The letter, signed by current and former faculty, alumni and others, says the U of S college of education has historically been a leader in First Nations and Métis education, but that things are going backward. It refers to a “toxic culture” and “climate of fear” inside the college. It says Indigenous faculty who left, and many of those who remain, “did not feel supported and were fearful of speaking out against the present administration’s harmful attitude, policies and practices. “It says Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who spoke out were “targeted.” It also accused U of S administrators of “exploiting Indigenous education by using it for public recognition while scaling back on necessary resources.”

Concerns include the following:

  • Indigenous faculty, staff and students facing institutional and individual racial hostility
  • The limits placed on academic freedom
  • The impact on public education across the province, in particular for marginalized students and community members that face a violent settler colonial context
  • The climate of fear and the silencing of people who shared concerns about the administration’s policies
  • Allies supportive of Indigenous faculty and staff have been targeted
  • The lack of ethical hiring practices and appointments through nepotism
  • Some key positions in Indigenous education have been dissolved
  • Exploiting Indigenous education by using it for public recognition while scaling back on necessary resources

June 6, 2021


Ryerson protest

Global News – A statue of Egerton Ryerson at Ryerson University, which was pulled down earlier Sunday evening by demonstrators, will not be “restored or replaced,” the university said Sunday. “The question of the statue was only one of many being considered by the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force, whose mandate includes consideration of the university’s name, responding to the legacy of Egerton R erson, and other elements of commemoration on campus,” read university president Mohame Lachemi’s statement.

June 2, 2021


Ryerson protest

Toronto Star – On May 11, Ryerson University’s First Nation-led research centre, Yellowhead Institute, issued an open letter announcing that their students and faculty would be swapping the school’s current name with “X” University in their email signatures and on social media. This is the firmest action taken by the department that has long denounced the university’s affiliation with Egerton Ryerson, whose beliefs are widely credited with the establishment of what became the residential school system.

Yellowhead Institute’s letter was in response to the “Standing Strong” task force, an independent group created by the university to complete expert historical research on Egerton Ryerson, while consulting with the community on how to address his statue on campus and other ties to his name…However, the Yellowhead Institute says it’s not enough…From an Indigenous student perspective, it cannot be reconciled.” Meanwhile, the Ryerson school of journalism on Tuesday announced that their masthead publications would be changing their names after the 2020-21 year following a unanimous vote at the school council meeting on May 18.

April 27, 2022

Ryerson University gets new name

Toronto Star: In a historic gesture toward reconciliation, Ryerson University is rebranding itself as Toronto Metropolitan University, cutting its connection to the man considered to have laid the foundations of the residential school system.

The new name came after years of advocacy by staff, students and community members.

In 2021, the school embarked on a renaming process following years of calls for it to drop its name. This also followed a summer of protest by students, advocates and Indigenous leaders, which led to the toppling of Egerton Ryerson’s statue on Gould Street after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a Kamloops residential school in May last year.

Ryerson, a Methodist minister and superintendent of schools for Upper Canada, was the architect behind the 1847 Ryerson Report, which laid the foundation for residential schools in Canada. The residential school system saw Indigenous children taken from their families in an attempt to assimilate them at government-funded, church-run schools that often abused and starved children and led to thousands of deaths.

Over the past year, more unmarked graves have been identified by authorities across the country, and there have been discussions on how to memorialize these sites.

Last June, 18 Indigenous faculty at the university wrote an open letter that called on the school to change its name. The letter called for “removing the face and name of a symbol of oppression, violence and pain.”

While there is a sense of relief that the Ryerson name is being stripped from the school, some Indigenous faculty and students say the renaming process has been challenging and caused harm to the very groups the name was hurting. “I’m happy the name is getting changed. That’s part of what we wanted,” said Anne Spice, a professor of Indigenous environment knowledges at Toronto Metropolitan. “But the way that this has been done feels really disempowering for the Indigenous people that have been organizing to make this change happen.”

Spice said the school did not consult extensively with Indigenous faculty and students who pushed for a change, and there’s been a lack of transparency about how the name was picked, including what names were on the short list. “The self-congratulatory tone that the university is taking is disturbing to a lot of us who’ve been involved in this work,” she said. “It feels like a brand exercise.”

In an email, the university said it engaged in a three-week-long public survey that polled the entire community on the most “critical elements” of the renaming process. It said the school remains committed to implementing all recommendations from the Standing Strong Task Force.

“The name just really reflects how they are trying to distance themselves and really remarket the university,” Howden said. “They just took it upon themselves to have these conversations behind closed doors, with very particular, curated individuals, to decide.”

The renaming process is occurring amid a reckoning with Canada’s history of colonialism and racism that has brought up discussions of who society should be honouring. Other institutions and organizations like the Toronto District School Board are engaging in renaming processes that have also been mired in concern from community members about ensuring a renaming is done fairly.