Student group urges the Calgary Board of Education to change the name of Sir John A. Macdonald school

Those calling for the name change held an art event this past weekend to bring awareness to the issue

By Halen Kooper | March 29, 2022 |5:00 am

Sir John A. MacDonald students enacted signs at the school in a bid to get the school's name changed.

Photo: Submitted

Students of Sir John A. Macdonald school are calling for the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) to change the name of their school due to its namesake’s history of racism. 

The students organized an art event on Blackfoot land on Sunday calling for the name change because of the troubled past associated with its namesake, John A. Macdonald. 

The school is located west of the Nose Hill Siksikaitsitapi Medicine Wheel, a monument that sits on traditional Blackfoot territory and holds spiritual and historical significance for the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Student Makena Halvorsen, 13, said she was participating in the event because she “wants to learn from history in order to not repeat it.” 

“No Indigenous, Black, Chinese, or racialized students should have to attend a school with a name that is a constant reminder of such violence and abuse,” Halvorsen said, adding schools are supposed to be safe places to learn.

Macdonald played a pivotal role in the atrocities of residential schools and also instituted the Chinese head tax through the Chinese Immigration Act (1885), and revoked the right of people of Chinese heritage to vote through the Electoral Franchise Act (1885). 

Momentum for the name change is building at the school

Halvorsen’s mother, Kara Payne, said that Halvorsen’s interest stemmed from a school assignment where she learned about the first prime minister of Canada. 

“When she was in Grade 7, she had to do a history of Sir John A. Macdonald,” said Payne. “She didn’t really like what he stood for. He had a lot of racist thoughts and actions towards Chinese and Black groups as well as the Indigenous people of Canada.”

After the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation found the graves of 215 children, Halvorsen realized these were kids her own age and talked to her parents to find a way to contribute to reconciliation. 

They reached out to the Reconciliation Action Group and Halvorsen connected with youth leaders, Joy McCullagh and Zach and Seth Helfenbaum, who began the work to rename Riverside school in Bridgeland.

The art event was supported by the Reconciliation Action Group, and Michelle Robinson, who also hosts the Native Calgarian Podcast, said the name change is important to creating a safe learning environment for all students.

“For us, to create a safer environment for Indigenous kids to learn and other racialized groups to learn in having schools that are named after racist founders of Canada,” Robinson said, “it’s not helping our children to be able to thrive in society.”

Recognizing Canada’s troubled past 

The other part of the name change is to recognize the truth and real history of Canada, which Robinson said has been deliberately hidden. 

“In a time of reconciliation, we have to start addressing the truth in order to get there,” she said. “We’re actually still working on what truth is in this country because it’s been suppressed on purpose. If we’re going to be honest about history, we have to include all the history.”

Robinson said that in order for reconciliation to happen, these truths and the history of Canada need to be talked about, which is why when the family contacted the Reconciliation Action Group, they got on board.

“The family actually reached out to us, and we felt supporting them was absolutely necessary, as we work on reconciliation,” Robinson said. “It’s important that all Canadians and Calgarians see their role in reconciliation.” 

This wasn’t the first time the group called for a school name change 

Supporting this youth-led initiative was necessary because Robinson said having settlers take part in reconciliation and truth is what Indigenous people have been asking for.

“It just seems until settler families start doing this work is when it finally gets done,” she said. “Hopefully there will be that shift in society of understanding. We all have to work on reconciliation, not just Indigenous folks.”

The Reconciliation Action Group was instrumental in the name change of Langevin school, which was named after the architect of the residential school program which led to the school being renamed Riverside School.

The CBE says they’re aware of the movement 

Calgary Citizen reached out for comment from the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) who released a statement in response, saying they’re “aware of the sign that has been mounted near the school.”

The statement read: 

“At this time, it is our intent to leave the sign up out of respect for those who wished for the sign to be visible to the public. As a system, we are working 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 CBE is committed to positive change. 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.  

“Our current Board of Trustees, elected in October 2021, intends to continue this work in a thoughtful way that reflects and considers community and student voice.”

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Halen Kooper

Halen Kooper is a contributor at Calgary Citizen.

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