British Columbia

Vancouver knows its school names don't reflect the city today. Here's what it's doing about it

The City of Vancouver has double the number of schools named for notable Britons as it does for women, and as many schools named for British Prime Ministers as it does people of colour.

Colonial names are a remnant of political culture a century ago, but changes are coming

Lord Strathcona Elementary School in Vancouver is one of eight schools in the city named for a British lord, compared to five in the rest of the province combined. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The City of Vancouver has double the number of schools named for notable Britons as it does for women, and as many schools named for British Prime Ministers as it does people of colour. 

And its school board believes that's less than ideal.

David Nelson, deputy superintendent of the Vancouver School Board (VSB), is overseeing a pilot project that allows for schools to be renamed through a formalized process under certain conditions, including a school community bringing forward a request.

"It's really an exciting opportunity for the district to look at the names of schools, and to make sure [they're] reflective of our mission and values," Nelson said.

It's already resulted in the VSB approving renaming Matthew Begbie Elementary and David Lloyd George Elementary this year, with their future names still to be determined.

Nelson says it's possible they could keep up this pace for many years.

"Some [schools names] have limited or very tenuous, at best, connections to Canada," he said. 

"And so, certainly, we're trying to learn through the pilot how many schools can reasonably be renamed within a school year?"


British lords, generals and PMs

Debates around renaming schools have happened more often in Vancouver than other school districts recently, but that's not just due to population.

A CBC News analysis of every school name in B.C. showed that 65 of the 98 school names in Vancouver honoured people, the second highest ratio of any large school board in the province.

Twenty-six schools in Vancouver are named for prominent Britons — including four prime ministers, four queens, and three generals — compared to 13 for the rest of the province combined. 

Vancouver historian John Atkin said the city's disproportionate share of colonial school names arose from the mindset of political leaders in the early 20th century, when population was booming and schools needed to be created and named. 

"They would be looking back to a place like Britain and its influence … and then thinking, 'How do I reinforce that here?'" he said.

"A lot of these names carry baggage that we really shouldn't be celebrating. And even if someone's forgotten the meaning of the name, it's still there."  

Rename for people, or neighbourhoods?

One of those schools where the meaning may have been forgotten is Lord Roberts Elementary — one of eight in Vancouver named after a lord, with just five in the rest of B.C. 

The fact Lord Roberts ran concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War at the start of the 20th century is uncontested. 

Ian Rowe, chair of the school's parent advisory council, is now trying to get the elementary into the VSB's pilot project.

He said a survey of parents shows 90 per cent support for a name change, but there's a split between those who want it renamed for a person, and those, like himself, who prefer a neighbourhood-based name. 

"A fundamentally flawed question is, basically, who should we honour with a school name?" he argued. 

"If we used something like neighbourhood names, suddenly all [the controversy] kind of goes away … it's a lot more clear, and then we know what school to go to for the basketball game." 

Vancouver School Board trustee Jennifer Reddy says the board could move quicker and in a more comprehensive fashion in determining what names should change. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

School trustee Jen Reddy believes there's merit in names that better reflect the diversity of Vancouver today. 

"If we're going to change the name, how are we using the name?" she said. 

But she agreed with Rowe that it was important for the school board to accelerate its process and have a more systemic look at all its names. 

"Folks are eager. This is a real time of change," she said.

"And if we don't show the leadership to review the names wholesale, I feel like we're missing an opportunity to engage a wider public dialogue."


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