School name change process should be thoughtful and inclusive

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Change can be uncomfortable, but it’s something we often crave.

There is a growing movement to rename schools, to better reflect diversity and reconciliation. Ryerson University in Toronto recently announced plans changing its name to Metropolitan University of Toronto, far from being named after an individual, Egerton Ryerson, which was linked to residential schools. The names of all K-12 schools in Toronto are under review, with a view to possible renaming, for similar reasons.

Richmond is not immune to this. In January, Richmond News reader Kim Nowitsky wrote a letter to the editor saying schools’ names should be changed to better reflect the city’s diversity, especially since many are named after men. whites. Her letter was in response to a news article by Maria Rantanen quoting Steveston resident Kelvin Higo, chair of the Steveston Japanese-Canadian Cultural Advisory Committee (SJCCA), who approached the Richmond School Board to rename Byng Elementary to Steveston after Hide Hyodo – who was Japanese and taught Byng before being interned during the war – to reflect the contributions of the Japanese community to the area.

Rantanen’s article says the Richmond School Board is reviewing its school naming policy this year. Board Chair Sandra Nixon told Rantanen the idea was to have an updated process that is “clear and transparent” and supports the school district’s commitment to “equity and more specifically, the fight against prejudice, privilege and systemic discrimination”.

British Columbia Teachers’ Federation hosted a webinar late last month about renaming schools as a sign of reconciliation. Two parents, Jen Arbo and Cheryl Sluice, and New Westminster student, Sam Killawee, spoke about their successful efforts to rename an elementary school in that city. The school is originally named after Richard McBride, one of British Columbia’s first premiers, who advocated for a “white British Columbia”, fought for anti-Asian laws and had a paternalistic attitude towards the indigenous peoples, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography says.

“He led the legislature in passing many anti-Asian measures such as taxes on companies that hired Chinese workers and legislation denying voting rights to Asians and indigenous peoples,” Sluice said during the webinar.

She was moved to act to change the name of the school after her child discovered this information while researching the school’s namesake.

Two Indigenous teachers, Peggy Janicki and Ryan Coleman, also spoke on the panel.

Elemental Richard McBride has been renamed Elemental Skwo:wech. Skwo:wech is a Halkomelem word for sturgeon, a large fish common in British Columbia waters.

“The sturgeon is older than the institutions on the ground and has been a source of food, a source of recreation and an important part of the river ecosystem,” Arbo said. “I look at them a bit like the wise old creatures who have seen a lot. It is also an endangered species that helps embody the act of conservation for students.

Over 250 names were suggested for the school, so parents wrote a rubric to choose a new name. The rubric was designed around questions, such as whether the suggested name contributes to decolonization or is consistent with school district values, or whether it honors the land and local history, Arbo said.

BCTF executive member Janicki said preserving Indigenous languages ​​is an important goal, calling it “decolonizing the mouth.” The more we use native words, the more fluid we become. This makes sense to me: in Richmond, there are two schools named after native words, Quilchena and Spul’u’kwuk Elementary Schools. I grew up in Vancouver near Quilchena Park so I always knew that word and didn’t even know it was aboriginal. I remember when Elemental Spul’u’kwuks the school opened in 2000, i never thought i would be able to say the name smoothly. But now it rolls off my tongue! Decolonization of the mouth, that’s for sure.

Coleman, who is an Indigenous district coordinator in the Langley School District, said if the process of choosing a new name is done right, it can create positive and transformative change.

“When you pick a name, I’ve been told that you don’t actually pick it, the name will pick you and I say that because if you go through the process and you have the consultations and you have the respect relationships and through all this mess, something will come up and rise to the top and that will be your name,” Coleman said. “Changing a name can be like planting a seed.”

Changing the name of a school can indeed be an act of reconciliation, if done correctly and thoughtfully, including Indigenous voices, students and the community.

We never know what all the results of our actions will be. Perhaps planting the seed of a name change will lead to even greater change and reconciliation opportunities down the road. Our world is changing and this change can make us feel uncomfortable, but it can also make us proud.

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Lily his blog or email her at tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

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