Richard Atleo to receive honorary degree from Toronto’s Ryerson University

Sam Laskaris, April 29, 2019

Atleo, a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation, will be awarded his honourary degree at the university’s convocation set for June 12. He is one of six individuals who will be receiving honorary degrees from Ryerson this year. (Submitted photo)


Richard Atleo believes he will not be the only beneficiary when he is presented with an honorary degree from Toronto’s Ryerson University later this spring.

Atleo, a hereditary chief of the Ahousaht First Nation, will be awarded his degree at the university’s convocation set for June 12. He is one of six individuals who will be receiving honorary degrees from Ryerson this year.

Atleo, who is now 80 and lives in Chilliwack, believes the fact the university has chosen him as a recipient for an honorary degree will help in the country’s reconciliation efforts.

“Yes, it’s a big deal,” Atleo said. “That’s because I understand the university is named after (Egerton) Ryerson, whose name was the start of the residential school system in Canada.”

Ryerson served as the chief superintendent of Ontario schools from 1842-76. During this time he wrote a report and frequently advocated to have Indigenous children educated separately from white children. And Ryerson stressed this education for Indigenous youth should be at boarding schools, away from their family members. 

Residential schools in Canada started being funded by the federal government, under the Indian Act, in 1876. The last residential school, operated by the federal government, closed its doors in 1996 in Saskatchewan.

Atleo, who was the first First Nations individual from the province to graduate with a Doctorate in Education from the University of British Columbia in 1990, said he will gladly accept his latest accolade.

“If I wasn’t impressed with it, I would not attend or accept it,” he said.

Atleo believes the fact he is being recognized by the university is proof reconciliation efforts are indeed paying off.

“It’s great for me and it’s great for Canada,” he said. “We are finally making progress where we can stand eyeball to eyeball. Thank you Canada for this.”

Atleo said he will speak highly of the Toronto university.

“I will accept the honour,” said Atleo, whose son Shawn is the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “But to me it’s not a one-way process. I can reciprocate and that’s the way it should be. I acknowledge the value of Ryerson and what they are doing.”

For Atleo, this will signify the second honorary degree that he has been awarded. He was presented with an honorary doctor of education degree from the University of Victoria in 2016.        

During his professional career, Atleo has taught students from the elementary school ranks to those in university. He’s also an author, environmentalist and philosopher. And his federal civil service posts included working as a special assistant to the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs.

Atleo last visited Ryerson in October of 2017. He was a guest speaker at a two-day symposium called The Many Gods of Canada: Religion, Secularism and Public Policy.

Atleo’s resume also includes a number of other significant accomplishments.

He received his first degree from UBC, a Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and a minor in anthropology, in 1968. The following year he earned a professional certificate from UBC in elementary education. Atleo obtained his Master of Education (in Curriculum) degree from UBC in 1977.

Besides teaching at UBC, Atleo has also held various teaching positions within the province at Simon Fraser University, University of Victoria and Malaspina University College, which is now called Vancouver Island University.

While at Malaspina, Atleo was not only a professor but also the chair of the school’s First Nations Studies program.

Atleo lectured overseas in Germany and Poland as well.

Some other well-known figures will also receive honorary degrees this year at Ryerson’s spring convocation. This list includes actor Eric McCormack (best known for his role on the TV series Will & Grace) and former Canadian politician Jean Augustine. McCormack graduated from Ryerson’s theatre program in 1985. The other recipients are Samantha Nutt, Hazel McCallion and Victor Dodig. Nutt is the founder of War Child Canada and War Child USA. McCallion served as the mayor of the Ontario city of Mississauga from 1978 through 2014. And Dodig is the president and CEO of CIBC.