British Columbia

We looked at the origins of every public school name in B.C. Here's what we found

To help provide a systematic analysis, we've analyzed all 1,386 unique public school names in British Columbia and what they were named for.

Most schools are named for local neighbourhoods, geography, or people — except in Vancouver

Mike Nelson, vice principal of Prince Charles Secondary School in Creston, B.C., removes the signage from the school's name on June 18, 2021. (Jeff Banman)

What's in a name?

It's a question governments across Canada are reckoning with when it comes to streets, parks and other places that have names that were decided on decades ago. 

More often than not, the focus turns to an individual name, and the history of the person honoured, and the totality of school names is ignored. 

To help provide a more systematic analysis, we've analyzed all 1,386 unique public school names in British Columbia and what they were named for.

The analysis has limitations — in about one per cent of schools, we were unable to determine the name's backstory, and in others some guesswork was required. In addition, we credited schools being named for mountains, lakes, neighbourhoods, the road they're on or other geographical markers, but in some cases those things were originally named for people as well. 

That being said, here's what we found.

Only about a quarter are named after people

By our count, 358 schools in B.C. are directly named after people, accounting for 25.8 per cent of all unique names for public schools. 

That's more than any other category — but much less than the combined schools named for geographic markers: 275 are named purely for the municipality or community they're in, 266 are named for the specific neighbourhood they're in, and 262 are named for nearby geographic markers like roads (94), parks (34) or creeks (21).

Several large school districts, including Burnaby and Victoria, have always focused on neighbourhoods and geographical markers for their school names.

The people with the most schools named after them are Queen Elizabeth, Scottish explorer David Thompson, and Prince Charles, all with three schools each — though the Kootenay Lake school district just voted to change its Prince Charles for next year.

But not in Vancouver

Of Vancouver's 98 unique school names, 65 are named after individuals — a higher percentage than nearly anywhere else in the province. 

And of those, 26 are named for people who spent all or the vast majority of their life in England, compared to just 13 in the rest of the province.

"We have the most school names after historical figures, some of whom have limited or very tenuous at best connections to Canada," said David Nelson, deputy superintendent of the Vancouver School Board, who is leading its review of school names.

White and male

It's the story with virtually all place names in Canada where the majority of things were named decades ago, and it's the case with schools in British Columbia. 

Of the 358 schools in B.C. clearly named for people, 66 are for women — just 18.3 per cent. While women make up less than a fifth of B.C.'s schools named for people, they make up the majority of schools named for teachers (23 of 31). 

And just six per cent of all schools named for people in B.C. are for people of colour. 

'Settler culture'

The biggest category of people with schools named after them in B.C. isn't school trustees (51), or mayors (23) or Indigenous people (15), but a broad category of residents cities tend to call "pioneers" — people who were among the first white people to settle in the area, often farmers, in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Seventy-one of them have schools in their honour in B.C. And while the largest number are in Richmond (21), they are spread relatively evenly across the province. 

Vancouver historian John Atkin said a lot of these conventions made sense because municipalities quickly grew without much local non-Indigenous history to draw upon — but it is worth exploring alternatives. 

"I think it's time that we start considering getting rid of these things, and bringing something back that's really rooted in place, location and culture that goes deeper than just the settler culture," he said. 

Trees, mountains and oceans

Otherwise, what comes through in the names of B.C. schools are the same themes that dominate this province physically. 

There are seven schools that begin with "cedar," and nine that begin with "pine." There are 24 named for specific mountains or mountain ranges, and four that are simply named "Mountain View."

In fact, we have a lot of "view" schools: Delview and Burnsview and Eagle View, Campus View and Valley View and Fairview (two of each of those), Seaview and Bayview, Eastview and Westview, Lakeview and Riverview.

And the most common school name of all may be the most generic of all: Parkland, which you can find in Coquitlam, Quesnel, Cranbrook, North Saanich and Farmington. 

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