Calgary's Langevin School renamed following outcry over namesake's link to residential schools

The Calgary Board of Education has passed a motion to rename Langevin School to Riverside School.

Students held a demonstration Monday as mayor called for immediate action

This is part of an art installation outside of Langevin School on Monday, set up by the Change Langevin School Committee. (Mike Symington/CBC News)

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

The Calgary Board of Education has passed a motion to rename Langevin School to Riverside School.

The name change is "effective immediately," the CBE said in a release Tuesday morning. 

Trustees held a special board meeting on Monday to approve the change.

Students Zach and Seth Helfenbaum and Joy McCullagh have been advocating for this change for more than four years. 

"It literally brought tears to my eyes because I was so happy and excited that this finally happened," said McCullagh.

"All of our hard work has finally paid off. I think it is our job as settlers to amplify the voices of Indigenous peoples because they have been oppressed for hundreds of years, and I think this is a small step in reconciliation, and a meaningful one."

Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the Fathers of Confederation and a Conservative cabinet minister, serving as secretary of state for the provinces when the country's residential schools were introduced. He is considered an architect of the residential school system.

Langevin students Zach Helfenbaum (Grade 8), Seth Helfenbaum (Grade 5) and Joy McCullagh (Grade 8), have been advocating to the Calgary Board of Education for years to have the name of their school changed. (Dave Rae/CBC News)

CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis said following the recent discovery of 215 children's remains on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., the board felt the need to act quickly.

"Certainly that news impacted us as a board and Canadians across the country. And so we felt it was important to come together and consider what we could do swiftly," she said.

And while the student advocates are pleased with the outcome, they are unhappy it took the discovery in Kamloops for the board to take action.

"They have been saying, 'We're so proud of this youth leadership,' and I think they're just trying to distract from the fact that the only reason they did change the name was because of all this external pressure," said McCullagh. 

"But I think regardless of, you know, why they changed it, they did. And so I think that's the brighter side," added Zach Helfenbaum. 

"I think it's because of all this pressure in the news and about the discovery in Kamloops and everybody wanting this to happen that they changed. I think they just kind of crumbled and were kind of willing to do anything to get it off their backs."

Indigenous advocate Michelle Robinson says she hopes this is the first of many schools do undergo a renaming. (Dave Rae/CBC News)

Michelle Robinson, a member of the Change Langevin Committee, is also the grand-daughter of a residential school survivor.

"It took the bodies and discoveries of 215 children and for an international public shaming for this board to finally change," she said. 

Nonetheless, Robinson calls this change a "symbolic first step" that she hopes results in further change.

"We have John A. Macdonald School and almost everyone complicit in some way in the genocide of Indigenous people have a school named after.… So we have a lot of work to do and our community is definitely committed to that."

Speaking at the provincial COVID-19 update on Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said if we go down that road, all of Canada's founding leaders would be "cancelled."

"As his authoritative contemporary biographer, Richard Gwyn, said, 'No Macdonald, no Canada.' I think Canada is worth celebrating. I think Canada is a great historical achievement," Kenney said. 

"It is an imperfect country, but it is still a great country, just as John Macdonald was an imperfect man but was still a great leader. If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly, and rightly in historical retrospect … then I think almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled."

On Monday, before the school was renamed, students from Langevin School continued their long advocacy to have the Bridgeland facility renamed, holding a demonstration and installing art outside the building.

The school was previously known as Riverside Junior High School before the CBE changed the name to Langevin Junior High in 1936.

Marilyn Dennis, board chair and CBE trustee for Wards 5 and 10. (CBE)

Dennis said the board has heard the concerns from students, staff and community members about the Langevin name. She said trustees were in the midst of developing a renaming policy to be used at the school, and others in the future.

"We were committed to getting that work done first. But, of course, the situation that arose over the last week or so caused the board to move quicker," she said.

"The work is ongoing work that we have never stopped with and we've made some good strides. We're looking forward to actually being able to have that policy come forward at a public meeting later this month."

In 2017, the City of Calgary moved to change the name of Langevin Bridge, linking Bridgeland and the downtown, to the Reconciliation Bridge.

Catholic board also under pressure

On Monday, the mayor called on both the public board to rename its school, located in the community of Bridgeland, and for the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) to find a new name for Bishop Grandin High School in the Haysboro community.

Nenshi said Tuesday he was pleased to see the CBE take action but thinks more work is required.

"Perhaps Riverside School may be a temporary name, and there may be a better way to name the school to acknowledge history. When we renamed the bridge, Reconciliation Bridge was carefully chosen with the knowledge keepers," he said.

"But also there is a giant plaque that explains the history, that explains who it was. We're not about erasing the history. We're about really talking about how we move forward together as a community."

Grandin was a celebrated Roman Catholic priest and bishop who advocated on behalf of Métis rights, but he also believed First Nations people needed to be "civilized" and viewed residential schools as the way to accomplish this.

The CCSD said in a release that as Catholics, they are deeply sorry for the residential school movement and will seriously look into renaming Bishop Grandin High School — but not without getting feedback from parents, staff, students, bishops and Indigenous elders.

The Calgary Catholic School District is facing pressures to rename Bishop Grandin High School in southwest Calgary. (Google Maps)

"It is easy to be distracted on other issues like changing names of schools, but we are staying strong in devoting this week to prayer for the loss of the Indigenous children," said chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas in an email to parents on Tuesday.

He said Calgary Catholic schools will pause for 215 seconds of silent prayers in memory of the dead children on Friday. 

Cora Voyageur, a sociologist with the University of Calgary and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said having to fight for this kind of change, and seeing it happen very slowly, is nothing new to Indigenous peoples.

"This is just part of our life experience in having to be very, very patient with both mainstream society and with the government," she said.

"But you've got to persist. And that's something that we've had to do basically since contact, that we have to be persistent because things do not happen overnight for us. And sometimes it takes multiple tries to get something accomplished."

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.

With files from Erin Collins, Dave Rae, John Gibson