Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.
Renaming Your School as an Act of Reconciliation
May 21, 2022
by Moira Mackenzie
Imagine your children researching their school’s namesake and discovering that the person being celebrated actively promoted racism and campaigned on white supremacy. Richard McBride, for whom the school was named, was BC’s Premier from 1903 to 1915. He introduced policies to disenfranchise immigrants and persons of colour and worked to remove lands from Indigenous people. Additionally, he was a leading anti-suffrage politician who steadfastly opposed women’s voting rights throughout his career. Jen Arbo and Cheryl Sluis, parents of past and current Richard McBride Elementary School students, can speak to this experience and what they set about to do about it.
Jen, Chris, and Sam Killawep, a secondary school student, were members the panel featured in the online seminar, “Renaming your school as an act of reconciliation,” recently sponsored by the BC Teachers’ Federation. The panel, moderated by BCTF President Teri Mooring, also included Peggy Janicki, who holds a seat designated for an Aboriginal teacher on the BCTF Executive Committee, and Brian Coleman, the chairperson of the BCTF Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee. Teri opened the session by describing official name changes as small but important steps in reconciliation and decolonization. She reflected on the impact of names on our understanding of people, place, and history, asking, “Whose lives and history do we honour and whose do we erase?”
With the former Richard McBride Elementary School in New Westminster, the timing for a name was particularly fortuitous as the old school was deemed seismically unsafe and was being rebuilt. Initially the parents were told that there was no opportunity to rename the school, however they didn’t stop there. When the research on Richard McBride was shared, the Parent Advisory Council passed a motion to request a change in name. The New Westminster Board of Education had introduced a comprehensive new procedure on renaming of schools and, just two days after receiving the PAC request, set up a renaming committee for the school.
The Board’s Re-naming School and District Facilities procedure provides an excellent framework to assess the need for a change and engage in an inclusive process to determine a new name. It affirms the district’s commitment to reconciliation and decolonization, and states that a name change will be considered “where the existing name is deemed to no longer be serving the needs of the school population of the community and no longer aligns with the district’s core values and strategic priorities.” When a proposal to change a school’s name is approved, a committee is established and charged with conducting the process and recommending a new name to the Board. The committee will consist of a trustee, a District Aboriginal Coordinator, a Director of Instruction or Associate Superintendent, a representative from each of the PAC, New West Principal and Vice Principal’s Association, CUPE, and the New Westminster Teachers’ Union, up to two Indigenous members, up to two members of the local community, and up to three student advisory members.
Once in place, the committee for the Richard McBride Elementary name change established a very thorough and thoughtful process, developing criteria, consulting extensively with the First Nations community leaders and local language keepers, and inviting proposals. A rubric was developed to assess the many suggestions, asking such important questions as, “Does it honor the local history and the land? Does it align with district values? Do students to engage with it?”
After nearly a year of work, the committee came to a unanimous decision to propose that the school be named Skwo:wech, which is the Halq’eméylem word for “sturgeon.” The name is particularly significant given the connection with the Fraser River and the importance of sturgeon to Indigenous communities who traveled up and down the river.
When asked what learning was most important to the entire process, Jen Arbo shared that the process can generate discomfort, it can be messy, and involves learning through a real world example of reconciliation. “It’s good. Accept it, verbalize it and work through it,” she advised.
Cheryl echoed the importance of sitting with the discomfort. “It’s healthy, “she concluded, “As a white person, I was hesitant but, once I saw what kids were seeing, it was not possible not to do something.” Now she sees the impact of the new name as well. “There is so much learning taking place, learning about the geography, history, language and the land.”
Noting that the plaque at the former Richard McBride Elementary was silent on the racist history, Sam noted that students learn so much from what’s around them. He remarked on his own learning in the process of serving on the committee and spoke to the importance of incorporating Indigenous languages. He reminded participants that students are living through the education system; they are capable and want to be fully involved.
In speaking to the paradigm shift necessary in decolonization, Peggy Janicki underscored the fact that Indigenous languages were deliberately, not accidentally, endangered. It was not only the only the words, but also the sounds of the languages that were erased. She spoke about the power of reflecting their lives and language back to Indigenous children in their schools and the world around them.
Brian Coleman described the name change, Richard McBride to Skwo:wech, as learning from the past, consulting in the present and looking to the future. He spoke about the essential importance of relationships and the need to give time to the process. “You don’t just choose a name; the name will choose you. You’ll know. Like the process, it will be long-lasting and meaningful, “ he said.
What made the process so successful in New Westminster? The panelists agreed that there was not one factor alone. The rebuilding of the school presented a good opportunity for a new name. The PAC was strong, the community was involved, the Board put clear procedures in place and the committee had the capacity to do the work. Their advice was clear: advocate with school trustees and ensure that the Board adopts a commitment to reconciliation and puts a formal name change procedure is put in place.
Skwo:wech Elementary, home to more than four hundred students, opened in its brand-new, beautiful building this spring. As the school board stated, “It’s a name that we’re proud to move forward with, that came from a process that involved a great deal of collaboration and learning already, with more opportunities to build on for years to come.”
While renaming a school is just one step in the necessary process of reconciliation and decolonization, it’s one that can have a significant impact for generations to come. Taking the time to research the names that currently mark the public schools and other sites around us is an important first step.
More information on Richard McBride Elementary becoming Skwo:wech Elementary is available through the following links:
Moira Mackenzie is a member of the Board of IPE/BC and long time advocate for quality, accessible, inclusive public education. She taught in BC public schools for many years at the primary and intermediate levels, and as a Resource & Learning Assistance teacher. Moira, who is now retired, also served in a number of elected and appointed roles within the teachers’ federation, including BCTF Executive Director.