From left, recent ADSS grads Justin MacFadden, Katie Sara and Sarah Higginson and social justice teacher Ann Ostwald reunite on Valerie Harrison’s front porch. MIKE YOUDS PHOTO

Alberni high school students help remove racist covenant from historic house

Former Comox-Alberni MP A.W. Neill once lived in the home

MIKE YOUDS

SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

A picturesque heritage property for sale with a tranquil backyard along the Kitsuksis Dyke checked all the boxes for Valerie Harrison last year, until she discovered it came with unwanted historical baggage.

“When Mom’s offer was accepted, they told us there was a covenant,” said Naomi Boutwell, Harrison’s daughter. “It turned out that it was a racist covenant saying that no Asians were allowed to live here,” the only exception being if the Asians were servants to the owners.

They learned that the property was originally the home of Alan Webster Neill (1868-1960), who served for 20 years as Comox-Alberni MP while espousing anti-Asian views considered racist even in an era of widespread racial intolerance. As an Indian Agent before entering politics, Neill was instrumental in establishing the first residential school in the Alberni Valley, another stain on his name.

The Margaret Street home dates back to 1909, not long after anti-immigration sentiments in B.C. grew violent with “anti-Oriental” riots and angry mobs threatening Vancouver’s Chinese and Japanese neighbourhoods.

“I was floored,” Harrison recalled, the emotion welling up again. “I was really upset.” She has a number of close relatives of Asian descent.

“How would I feel if it was them?”

A.W. Neill’s political legacy is recognized through a Port Alberni elementary school and street that still bear his name. Initiatives two years ago — sparked by former valley resident Chris Stevenson and pursued by former city councillor Chris Alemany and school trustee Rosemarie Buchanan — were unsuccessful in having Neill’s name replaced.

Undeterred, Harrison completed the purchase, firm in the belief that the century-old covenant would not hold up if challenged. Last week, she hosted a celebration at her property, serving breakfast to a circle of people who helped her rid the racist stipulation through a provision of the Land Title Act. Among them were three ADSS graduates — Sarah Higginson, Justin MacFadden and Katie Sara — who proudly took on the project last fall as students in Anne Ostwald’s Social Justice class.

“It was totally a social justice issue,” Ostwald said. “I presented the idea to my class and Sarah was the one who was excited about it.”

READ: Reconciliation at heart of move to rename Neill Elementary School

Projects she assigns must offer some form of community benefit, so it was an obvious opportunity for students to pursue.

“When we were researching it, we thought a lot about the history of this town,” Sara said. “We definitely have a history that’s not the best. We definitely need to change it.”

The students contacted Alemany, who directed them to the applicable legislation, and connected with Ian Baird, associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Baird was already focused on the issue, documenting the A.W. Neill name-change initiatives for a soon-to-be-published UVic book called Landscapes of Injustice.

Anti-Asian attitudes were prevalent along the B.C. coast, but “Port Alberni does have a certain history,” Baird noted.

READ: City of Port Alberni’s reconciliation report makes 27 recommendations

While the name-change initiatives failed, city council discussions led to a positive outcome, formation of the city’s reconciliation committee with a mandate to foster improved relations with First Nations, Baird said. As well, there is another change that grew apparent during the course of his research.

“There seems to me to be a public effort to make Port Alberni a more Asian-friendly place, to create some spaces that are welcoming,” Baird said.

About to enter arts programs at VIU and UVic, the grads hope that A.W. Neill’s name will ultimately be removed from local places.

“There are still people in the community who are kind of adverse to change,” Sara said.

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