Calgary

Students and advocates want 'traumatizing' name of CBE's Langevin school changed

The call to rename the Calgary Board of Education's Langevin School, named after one of the men behind Canada's residential school system, is growing louder — bolstered by current and former students who say the name is offensive to Indigenous peoples and reinforces racism.

Calgary Board of Education says there is no official process to rename a school

Why these students are fighting to change the name of their Calgary school

CBC News Calgary

3 months ago
3:13
Students have joined forces with Indigenous groups to ask that the Langevin School named after one of the architects of Canada's residential school system be changed. 3:13

The call to rename Calgary's Langevin School, named after one of the men behind Canada's residential school system, is growing louder — bolstered by current and former students who say the name is offensive to Indigenous peoples and reinforces racism.

The Bridgeland school gets its name from Hector-Louis Langevin, 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. 

Joy McCullagh is in Grade 8 at the school and has been advocating to change the name since she was in Grade 4. But it's been an issue as far back as 2015. She said she had learned a little bit about residential schools but nothing about the school's namesake. 

"Then my parents start telling me about it and I was like, 'I actually want to learn more about this,'" she said.

McCullagh said she did some research and ended up writing a letter to the trustees at the Calgary Board of Education.

In part, it read: "We now know residential schools didn't treat Indigenous people right. It was very traumatizing for them. We know this because residential school survivors have told stories about what life was like. They had to practise the Europeans' religion and speak English and they were forbidden to speak their own language."

McCullagh said her letter went unanswered. 

CBE board of trustees chair Marilyn Dennis. (CBC)

"I was just saying that Hector-Louis Langevin was not a good guy and that he caused a lot of hurt and pain and that we don't want to honour that and so we should change the name," she said.

The lack of acknowledgement from the school board hasn't stopped her and her fellow students from continuing to push for change. Classmate Zach Helfenbaum and younger brother Seth Helfenbaum, who is in Grade 5, are among those continuing the demand change from the board. 

"We're working with a little action group, there's a bunch of us are that are all working toward this goal," said Zach.

He said the action group presented to the Langevin school council and they've agreed to keep it in their agenda.

"So they're on board with this as well," he said. "A lot of this is about how can we kind of make reconciliation toward Indigenous peoples. It's also important for a lot of us settlers because we need to know the full truth of our history so that we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again."

Marilynn Dennis, board chair for the CBE, said there is no existing process to change a school name. 

"There is a focus now on one school, but this is much bigger than that. This is about how how we name schools in the first place and what factors we consider when we are looking at the possibility of renaming a school," she said. 

Former Langevin School student Heather Lucier says she'd like the school board to consider how the school's name impacts Indigenous students. (Submitted by Heather Lucier)

"We do have in policy renaming, yet we don't actually have a process for renaming schools." 

While Dennis acknowledged the lack of process as "problematic," she said there isn't any work being done to develop such a process.

"It's going to take longer than this board of trustees has time to do because renaming a school is not going to be quick work," she said. "I would say we're not going to see any schools renamed during the remaining term of this board of trustees."

The board chair said the CBE will not give a school an interim name until there is a process in place.

And, when asked if the CBE would acknowledge the name of the school was problematic, she said the board did not have a stance on the matter.

"To honour the traditions of schools, we need to be able to hear all voices in something as important as renaming," she said.

"[Some] feel that there is an educational opportunity that is lost by changing the name of the school because the name of a school can be used as an educational tool."

Former Langevin School student Heather Lucier, an Indigenous woman, is now the mother of four children. 

She said that when she attended the school back in the 1980s and 1990s, she didn't know anything about Langevin the man. 

The city changed the name of this bridge in downtown Calgary from the Langevin Bridge to Reconciliation Bridge in 2017. (Qyd via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

"It hurts … knowing that the school that I went to for almost my entire childhood is celebrating someone who caused so much harm, that is still felt like in my family," she said.

"One of my sons asked me, 'Why can't you teach me our language?' And I said, 'because we don't have it to teach you.'"

Lucier, who has joined forces with the students working on this, said she's heard from people who say changing the school name would be damaging to the Langevin family.

"What about me and Indigenous people like me? Don't we matter as much as the Langevin family?" she said. 

Lucier said knowing what she does now about Langevin, she would feel "uncomfortable" sending her own children there.

The City of Calgary made the decision to change the name of a downtown bridge by the same name to the Reconciliation Bridge in 2017.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra recently penned a letter expressing his support for the school's name change. 

"I feel like that debate was had and it was pretty clear that this is a historical figure who who was an architect of the residential school system, which we acknowledge as being a genocidal moment and a genocidal legacy in Canadian history," he said. 

"So in pursuit of truth and reconciliation, we sat down with our Indigenous community and we worked out a renaming of the Reconciliation Bridge. It was my full expectation that the school board would be doing the same work at the same time."

Carra said he's surprised it appears that no work has been done. 

"Why is nothing being done and why are they not talking about where they are in the process?"

Parents, Indigenous advocates and members of the public spoke at the trustees' public meeting last week about the board's admitted continued failure to improve Indigenous students' outcomes, and how renaming the Langevin School is a "necessary first step in decolonizing the education system."

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

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