By Thomas Peace
In 1842, at the Dawn settlement near Dresden, Ontario, Josiah Henson built the British American Institute (BAI), a school for peoples who had escaped their enslavement. Five years later, about 75 kilometers from the BAI, on the banks of the Deshkan Ziibiing near London, Methodist missionary Kahkewaquonaby (Peter Jones) – a Mississauga leader from Credit River (western Toronto) – built the Mount Elgin Institute, a manual labour school for Munsee-Delaware and Anishinaabeg children.
Both schools were short lived, failing to live up to the hopes of their founders (though Mount Elgin reopened in 1867 with less community involvement).
What is important here is the agency deployed by Black and Indigenous people like Josiah Henson and Kahkewaquonaby in seeking out, and controlling, robust systems of education for their communities.
Making their situation much more complex, however, is that the educational philosophies these men espoused have common roots with the development of the residential school system as well as two elite American colleges.
Understanding this historical context reveals an important turning point in the history of racism and exclusion in Canadian law and society. In this moment, some Black and Indigenous peoples hoped schooling might help navigate the developing settler colonial state while – at the same time – those efforts were thwarted and co-opted by government and churches to entrench racial hierarchies that privileged White English-speaking settlers. Egerton Ryerson falls right in the middle of these divergent interests. Continue reading