Adolphus Egerton Ryerson (24 March 1803 – 19 February 1882) was a Methodist minister, educator, politician, and public education advocate in early Ontario, Canada. He was the leading opponent of the closed oligarchy that ran the province, calling it the “Family Compact.”
He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church at 18, and was forced to leave the home by his Anglican father. Becoming an itinerant minister – or circuit rider – in the Niagara area, his life in a politically disadvantaged religion formed his tolerant views. As early as 1825 Ryerson 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. 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) 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.
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 pretentions 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 (sic) Wesleyan University in Connecticut and served as President of the Church in Canada from 1874 to 1878.”
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.
His 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.
Ryerson’s legacy within Canada’s education system also included the hand he played in the implementation of the controversial Canadian residential school system. It was his study of Native education commissioned in 1847 by the Assistant Superintendent General of Indian Affairs that would become the model upon which Residential Schools were built.
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. 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 in 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. 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.