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Rights + Justice

Ten Schools the VSB Should Aim to Rename

‘Unapologetic British imperialists’ don’t reflect today’s values, but they once did. A brief history of school naming in Vancouver.

Lindsay Gibson and Mallory Davies 7 Sep

Lindsay Gibson is an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and pedagogy at UBC. Find him on Twitter @ls_gibson. Mallory Davies is a PhD student at the University of Waterloo. Find her on Twitter @mallory_davies. The research described in this article was funded by the UBC Hampton Fund New Faculty Grant in the humanities and social sciences.

Over the past five years, individuals and community groups have placed increasing pressure on the Vancouver School Board to rename schools named after individuals whose historical legacies do not reflect the values of the school communities they’re located in.

In 2017, Sir William Macdonald Elementary was renamed Xpey’ Elementary, which means “cedar” in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language of the Musqueam people, in recognition of the Indigenous history of the area and the school’s status as a District Aboriginal Focus School.

In 2019, Jennifer Reddy successfully campaigned to remove a sign commemorating Cecil Rhodes in the playground of L’École Bilingue.

In 2020, Vancouver–Kingsway member of Parliament Don Davies called for the VSB to rename Gladstone Secondary. William Gladstone was a four-time British prime minister who opposed the abolition of slavery in 1834, and whose political career was financed by his father, who owned nine sugar plantations and more than 2,500 slaves in the Caribbean.

In May 2021, three students campaigned to have Lord Strathcona Elementary renamed Barbara Howard Elementary, after the legendary Black athlete and educator who attended and taught in schools in East Vancouver.

In October 2018 the VSB formed the Naming and Renaming Working Group to review the process for naming new facilities and renaming existing facilities. In June 2019 trustees approved a draft procedure for renaming schools. The draft renaming process was piloted with two schools currently undergoing seismic replacement, Matthew Begbie Elementary and David Lloyd George Elementary, and trustees voted to rename the two schools.

School names, like statues, plaques and other historical commemorations, are manifestations of power. The powerful impose their narratives on the surrounding landscape by naming and renaming places and phenomena.

By analyzing Vancouver school naming practices over time, we can identify the top candidates for schools the VSB should consider renaming — so the names of our schools better reflect their communities’ values and understanding of their history.

Analyzing current Vancouver school names

There are currently 97 uniquely named elementary and secondary schools in the VSB. Many of these 97 schools are old; 53 were built before 1930 and 35 more were built between 1946 and 1975. Only nine have been built since 1976. The oldest schools currently in the VSB are Admiral Seymour Elementary and Lord Roberts Elementary, both of which opened in 1900.

As Justin McElroy noted in his recent CBC article about the origins of B.C. school names, Vancouver has a higher percentage of schools named after individuals than any other school district in the province. According to our research, 65 schools are named after people and nine schools are named after a geographic area or street in Vancouver named after a historical person. For example, Carnarvon Community Elementary is located beside Carnarvon Street and Carnarvon Park, which are named after Lord Carnarvon.

We classified these 74 schools into 10 thematic groups based on their historical legacy:

* The VSB voted to rename these two schools.

The majority of VSB schools are named after economically and politically powerful white male politicians, military personnel, explorers, royalty, businessmen and professionals. Eleven schools are named after women, six are named after an Indigenous person and only one school, Sir James Douglas Elementary, is named after a Black person. Not a single school is named after an Asian or South Asian person.

Fifteen schools are named after geographic areas. Ten are named after geographic areas in Vancouver, five are named after local neighbourhoods named after places in the United Kingdom, and one is named after a street named after a historical battle (Trafalgar Elementary).

Five schools are named after symbols (Britannia Community Elementary, Britannia Community Secondary, Tyee Elementary, Thunderbird šxʷəxʷaʔəs Elementary School, Xpey' Elementary) and two schools are named for the educational focus of the school (L'École Bilingue Elementary and Vancouver Technical Secondary).

Continuities and changes in school names over time

It is difficult to make sense of the patterns and trends in school naming practices over time, as many elementary schools have opened, closed, moved and been renamed in the history of Vancouver. To further complicate things, before their amalgamation on Jan. 1, 1929, Vancouver, South Vancouver and Point Grey were separate municipalities that each had different school naming practices.

The City of Vancouver was incorporated on April 6, 1886. South Vancouver was granted municipal status for the area south of 16th Avenue. from Boundary Road to the University Endowment Lands on April 13, 1891, and on Jan. 1, 1908, Point Grey separated from South Vancouver from Cambie Street to the University Endowment Lands.

851px version of VancouverHistoryPoliticalGrowth.jpeg
A 1961 map showing the political expansion of Vancouver. Image courtesy of the City of Vancouver. Public domain.

To better understand the continuities and changes in Vancouver school naming practices over time, the 97 schools currently in the VSB can be organized into thematic time periods based on the year they opened and the municipalities they are located in.

1900 to 1914: British Imperialism

The City of Vancouver built 17 schools during this time period that are currently in the VSB. These schools are named after British imperial symbols (Britannia), British military heroes (Admiral Seymour, Lord Roberts, Lord Nelson, General Gordon, Florence Nightingale), British royalty (Queen Alexandra, King George), British explorers (Simon Fraser, Henry Hudson, Sir John Franklin, David Livingstone) and British writers (Charles Dickens, Lord Tennyson).

1909 to 1928: Significant People in B.C. and Canadian History

Before amalgamating with the City of Vancouver in 1929, the municipality of South Vancouver built 12 schools still in the VSB. These schools are named after prominent people in B.C. and Canadian history, including explorers (Sir Alexander Mackenzie), military heroes (General Brock, General Wolfe, Laura Secord, Tecumseh), politicians (Sir Richard McBride, John Norquay, John Oliver), businessmen (Lord Selkirk, Sir William Van Horne), settlers (J.W. Sexsmith) and engineers and surveyors (Walter Moberly, Sir Sanford Fleming).

1908 to 1929: Local Geography and Britons of the First World War

Between separating from the municipality of South Vancouver in 1908 and amalgamating with the City of Vancouver in 1929, the municipality of Point Grey built 11 schools still in the VSB. These schools are named after British military heroes, politicians and royalty during the First World War (Lord Kitchener, Queen Mary, Edith Cavell, Prince of Wales, David Lloyd George, Lord Byng) and local geographic areas (Kerrisdale, Maple Grove, Quilchena, Point Grey).

1915 to 1928: Vancouver Geography

During this time period, six schools currently in the VSB were built. Only one school was named after an imperial British figure (Sir Wilfred Grenfell) and there was a shift towards naming schools after local areas (Kitsilano, Grandview, Renfrew) and streets (Templeton), two of which were named for local people. Kitsilano was named after Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Chief X̱ats'alanexw (Khatsahlano) and Templeton Street was named after William Templeton, the sixth mayor of Vancouver.

1929 to 1960: Integrating Different Naming Practices

After Vancouver, South Vancouver and Point Grey amalgamated in 1929, 18 schools that are still in the VSB were built in the next three decades. The previous naming practices utilized in the three municipalities prior to amalgamation continued to be used. Schools were named after prominent politicians, explorers, professionals and Indigenous people in B.C. and Canadian history (Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Charles Tupper, Captain James Cook, David Thompson, Sir William Osler, Sir Matthew Begbie, Chief Maquinna). Four schools were named after iconic British people including Queen Elizabeth II, William Gladstone and Sir Winston Churchill. Schools also continued to be named after geographic areas of Vancouver (Southlands, Killarney, Shaughnessy), streets (Trafalgar) and politicians and prominent locals (Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Dr. R.E. McKechnie, David Oppenheimer).

1961 to 1969: Prominent B.C. Educators and Locals

Similar to the previous period, schools continued to be named after prominent people or groups in Canadian and B.C. history (Emily Carr and the Nootka peoples), and local businessmen and politicians (George T. Cunningham, Eric Hamber). However, beginning in 1961, Vancouver schools were named after influential local and B.C.-based educators and school trustees, including Dr. Annie B. Jamieson, Dr. George M. Weir, John Henderson, Dr. A.R. Lord, Dr. H.N. MacCorkindale and Graham D. Bruce.

1970 to 2017: Hodgepodge and New Directions

Only 13 new schools were built in Vancouver during this 47-year time period, including three schools between 1976 and 2000 and six schools between 2000 and 2021. Although schools were named after Indigenous symbols and names for the first time (Thunderbird in 1970 and Tyee in 1973), naming practices were similar to previous time periods. Schools were named for local neighbourhoods and areas (Champlain Heights in 1973 and False Creek in 1977), the educational purpose of the school (L'École Bilingue in 1973), explorers and politicians in Canadian history (Jules Quesnel in 1983 and Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 2002) and local educators (Elsie Roy in 2004 and Norma Rose Point in 2014). In 2017, Crosstown Elementary opened; its name was chosen because it was located in the growing urban area that intersected the communities of Gastown, Chinatown, Yaletown and Northeast False Creek. In 2018, VSB trustee Allan Wong’s motion to rename the school for Alexander Won Cumyow, an activist and interpreter who was the first Chinese Canadian born in British North America, was defeated. In March 2020, xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm (Musqueam) Elder Larry Grant gifted the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ name šxʷwəq̓ʷəθət to Crosstown Elementary to better reflect the history of the xʷməθkʷəy̓ əm (Musqueam) and səlil ̕wətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples.

851px version of VancouverKeystoneBCSaturdaySunset.jpeg
Image from the BC Saturday Sunset, April 24, 1909. Courtesy of SFU Digital Collections.

Ten schools that should be considered for renaming

The VSB has outlined three ways to initiate the review of a school name under their draft renaming process: if the school has been approved for replacement under the Seismic Mitigation Program; if a school community, which includes students, staff and the Parents Advisory Council, makes a formal written request to the secretary treasurer signed by the school principal and the school PAC chair; or if the board passes a motion requesting review of a school name.

After the renaming process has commenced, an ad hoc working group is formed to complete a “Consideration for Renaming Summary Report” that is submitted to the Facilities Planning Committee. The FCP reviews the report and makes a recommendation to the board to either keep the current school name or start a renaming process for the school. When deciding on whether to rename a school the FCP considers the following criteria:

Given these criteria, there are at least 20 schools that community groups and the VSB should consider renaming, but 10 schools in particular are most urgent:

  1. Admiral Seymour Elementary (1900)

  2. Captain James Cook Elementary (1956)

  3. David Livingstone Elementary (1912)

  4. General Gordon Elementary (1911)

  5. Gladstone Secondary (1950)

  6. Lord Beaconsfield Elementary (1909)

  7. Lord Kitchener Elementary (1914)

  8. Lord Nelson Elementary School (1910)

  9. Lord Roberts Elementary School (1900)

  10. Sir Winston Churchill Secondary (1956)

Seven of the 10 schools on this list were built between 1900 and 1914, when Vancouver advertised itself as a proud and loyal member of the British Empire and a strategically positioned port destined to become a key player in world trade. During this time period real estate boomed and the population grew to 106,110 in 1914 from 24,750 people in 1900, many of whom were immigrants from Great Britain.

These 10 schools are named after unapologetic British imperialists, including politicians, soldiers, explorers and politicians, who had little connection to Canada, B.C., Vancouver or Indigenous communities and histories. These school names are not unique to Vancouver, and six names on the list also have schools named after them in the Winnipeg School District (David Livingstone, Lord Nelson, William Gladstone, Lord Nelson, Lord Roberts, and Sir Winston Churchill).

The men on the list are primarily known for their contributions to the expansion of the British Empire via exploration, conquest and colonial wars that caused death and suffering for subjugated populations. They contributed little to the advancement of education, science, technology, medicine or progressive laws related to human rights and freedoms.

In Lies Across America: What Our Historical Sites Get Wrong, author James Loewen argues that “the commemorations a community decides to create on its landscape sums up its view of the past and influences its possible futures.” Leaving the name of an imperialist or racist on a school makes a powerful statement to future students about who is worthy of remembrance and who is not. The decisions we make about who gets commemorated and whose narratives are told have real consequences for society.

If the VSB is committed to providing an innovative, caring and responsive learning environment that values and celebrates the well-being of every individual as their 2021 Strategic Plan states, then renaming schools that commemorate racist imperialists is a good place to start.

The names on Vancouver schools provide evidence about the dominant values, beliefs and world views that existed when the schools were built, but are now outdated. We encourage school communities to learn more about the people and places their schools are named after, and continue to advocate for renaming schools that no longer represent their communities’ values and histories. Renaming schools is not an end in itself, but an important step towards telling more diverse and inclusive histories that better reflect our communities.  [Tyee]

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