Calgary

CBE's proposed school renaming policy 'missed the point,' says Reconciliation Action Group

Advocates are calling a proposed school renaming policy to be debated by Calgary Board of Education trustees on Tuesday "really problematic."

Calgary Board of Education trustees to discuss proposal at public meeting Tuesday

Members of the Reconciliation Action Group stencil messages in chalk outside of the Calgary Board of Education's head office on Monday evening. The group is asking for changes to the board's proposed policy governing how school names are changed. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.


Advocates are calling a proposed school renaming policy to be debated by Calgary Board of Education trustees on Tuesday "really problematic."

The Reconciliation Action Group (formerly Change Langevin group) previously fought to have Langevin School, named for the architect of Canada's residential school system, renamed. That request was answered at the beginning of June when the school was renamed Riverside School.

While the school board acknowledged the group's advocacy, its decision was sped up by the discovery just days before of what is believed to be unmarked burial sites containing children's remains, adjacent to a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

Students Seth Helfenbaum (Grade 5), Joy McCullagh (Grade 8) and Zach Helfenbaum (Grade 8), all members of the Reconciliation Action Group, advocated for four years to have the Calgary Board of Education change the name of their school. (Submitted by the Helfenbaum family)

Prior to that, trustees had committed only to coming up with a school renaming policy.

On Tuesday, that proposed policy will be debated by trustees.

Documents posted on the CBE's website state the proposed policy would review the existing name of schools and other CBE facilities if the board decides a review is needed or a petition garnering thousands of signatures is submitted.

Reasons the board would consider renaming the school or other CBE facilities under this policy include whether the name is a "significant departure from generally-recognized standards of public behaviour that is seen to undermine the credibility, integrity or relevance of the board's contemporary values."

The policy also calls for the creation of a naming committee. It would consist of a number of trustees, administrators and community representatives.

The committee's responsibilities would include retaining independent historians to conduct research, ensure the acknowledgement of the land and its relationship with Indigenous peoples is considered and that engagement is done prior to making recommendations.

It says CBE facilities may be named for the community it's located in, historical Canadian events and Canadians who have demonstrated exemplary achievement, among other reasons.

'Missed the point'

But the action group, made up of community advocates, students, parents and Indigenous people, say the proposed policy will "maintain the status quo."

"We want a policy that's explicitly anti-oppressive and that has a clear trigger for why they would begin reviewing names," said member Rosemary Brown, adding that the policy relies on the advocacy of others.

She said the policy "missed the point" and that it doesn't explicitly say how the board will address schools with divisive names, like Sir. John A. Macdonald, named for Canada's first prime minister who was also behind the residential school system.

"There doesn't seem to be an acknowledgement ... around systemic racism or any form of systemic oppression, and that they're a part of that."

A CBE spokesperson said trustees won't comment on the matter until after Tuesday's presentation.

This stencil, designed by Siksika artist and residential day school survivor Adrian Stimson, was sprayed with chalk outside of the Calgary Board of Education's downtown headquarters Monday evening. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

The action group is calling for a number of actions including the immediate removal of names [of schools and CBE facilities] of those whose policies and practices have been racist or anti-Indigenous, and that consultations always include Treaty 7 members.

 The group spent part of Monday evening chalking a message on the sidewalk outside the board's downtown office. 

The message is "Change Your Name, Name Your Change," painted using a stencil designed by Indigenous artist Adrian Stimson, who is a member of the Siksika First Nation and attended multiple Canadian residential day schools.

Rosemary Brown, with the Reconciliation Action Group, says the proposed policy misses the point. (Julie Debeljak/CBC)

Stimson said he's disappointed by the proposed policy.

"For me, right away that that triggers that sort of idea that here we are again. They have to rely on controversy and being pressured to do things. They can't take the initiative upon themselves to realize that we are in a time of change and therefore they should take the onus upon themselves to just do it."

Stimson said he believes the CBE should commit to reviewing all its school and facility names to make sure they align with current values, instead of waiting for a complaint or petition.


Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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