Historians join call for action on renaming Sir John A. Macdonald School

Local advocacy group gets some public backing from two Canadian professors, including Mount Royal’s Dr. Carmen Nielson

By Krista Sylvester | April 26, 2022 |5:00 am

Last month, Calgary’s Reconciliation Action Group conducted a “yarn-bombing” at Sir John A. Macdonald school to raise awareness about changing the school's controversial name.

Photo: Submitted

Two respected Canadian historians are throwing their support behind the calls to rename the Calgary Board of Education’s (CBE) controversially named Sir John A. Macdonald School. 

University of Manitoba History and Indigenous Studies assistant professor Dr. Sean Carleton and Mount Royal University associate professor in History Dr. Carmen Nielson have written letters of support for the ongoing local campaign to change the name of the school. 

Calgary’s Reconciliation Action Group’s calls to rename the Huntington Hills-Thorncliffe area junior high school have been ongoing since last year, and, last month, 13-year-old Grade 8 student Makena Halvorsen spearheaded an art-based protest outside of the school to raise awareness about the initiative. 

What’s in a name 

The group previously fought to have CBE’s also controversially named Langevin School renamed in 2021 after the discovery of mass graves at residential schools across the country, and the school board eventually renamed it Riverside School last June. 

“Our hope is not to force this change on people unwillingly,” Reconciliation Action Group member and mother of three Sarah Flynn explains. 

“Our hope is that the CBE Board of Trustees take a leadership role in helping Calgary and Calgary schools fall in line with the principles of reconciliation and also embrace a more nuanced and honest understanding of the history of this space.” 

Speeding up the process 

A public letter-writing campaign and a peaceful, direct-action campaign on the part of students and citizens have been highlighting the urgency of addressing this name change — but Flynn says the CBE has been dragging its heels. She hopes these letters will help speed up the process. 

“Because of their background and their credentials, they’re able to enunciate very clearly and very concisely why this is the right thing to do,” Flynn says. 

“We’re hoping that their clear, authoritative explanation will help people understand that it’s important and it’s important to do it in a timely manner. This is the right time.”

The controversy surrounds Macdonald’s legacy as a key factor in Canada’s residential school system. The former prime minister’s role was brought into the spotlight after the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Final Report in 2015. 

Historians call for change 

Dr. Nielson points out that Macdonald “was sharply criticized by his own contemporaries for his ruthless disregard for Indigenous death and starvation.” 

In her letter to the CBE, she says that for many Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, Macdonald has become a symbol of Canada’s racist past. 

“Continuing to memorialize Macdonald perpetuates the idea that Canada’s history of racism can be simply ignored or explained away,” she states. 

“However, unless we, as citizens, acknowledge our past in all its complexity, we will not be adequately equipped to build better, more humane, and inclusive communities.”

Dr. Carleton says Macdonald’s complicated legacy has been well-known and well-documented for decades and he says that re-evaluating the suitability of building names is “exactly in line with the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings.” 

The CBE responds 

As momentum grows for the renaming of Sir John A. Macdonald, Flynn says the hope is that the CBE board will seize the opportunity to be proactive. 

“Let’s move quickly on this,” Flynn adds. 

The CBE provided Calgary Citizen with a statement, saying that they are “together every day to build positive and inclusive learning and work environments for everyone.

“Supporting and enhancing the achievement and well-being of Indigenous students is in alignment with the CBE’s Education Plan and is an important goal of the CBE,” the statement reads. 

“Our work in this area includes advancing CBE CARES: Collaboration for Anti-Racism and Equity Supports (CARES), the CBE’s work with the Elder Advisory Council, and our system’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation and acknowledging the TRC calls to action.”

In June 2021, the CBE Board of Trustees revised its naming and renaming policy for CBE schools to “align with the board’s values and commitment to promoting a welcoming, caring, safe, respectful and inclusive learning environment.”

 

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Krista Sylvester

Managing Editor at Calgary Citizen

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