No decisions have been made regarding the name of A.W. Neill Elementary School, but city councillor Chris Alemany petitioned for the school board to change the name for the 2017-2018 school year at the Tuesday night board of education meeting for School District 70.
Board chair Pam Craig emphasized that no decisions would be made on Tuesday, but the board will take Alemany’s petition under advisement and reply in the future.
Alemany spoke at the school board meeting as an individual and as a parent of two children who attend A.W. Neill Elementary. However in his capacity as city councillor he has championed the changing of Neill Street and publicly advocated for a name change at the school.
“On the surface, there’s no reason that his name should not be on the school,” Alemany said. “Scratch the surface of Mr. Neill’s legacy, and you reveal something much darker.”
He cited documents, letters and the parliamentary Hansard that provided more information about A.W. Neill.
“This was a man who personally championed for the displacement, incarceration and degradation of people, including children, he believed inferior,” he said. Some of the comments Neill made, Alemany said, were about, “children the same age and cultural background as those going to the school bearing his name today.”
Alemany reminded trustees that Neill’s advocacy directly affected children. “I urge you to take this opportunity to show leadership in our community,” he said. “I urge you to hear his words and consider his actions, ask yourselves truthfully whether any school filled with children whose parents or grandparents were likely to have suffered from his actions should bear his name.”
He pointed out that the Tseshaht First Nation recently passed a motion at their annual general meeting to support changing the name of the school, and also that Port Alberni welcomes dozens of children to the community every year as part of the Abashiri Twinning Society exchange program from Japan.
“It is important that we send this signal to them that they, as well as their ancestors, were welcome,” he said.
He finished by reminding the board that the school district’s motto is “Always Learning.”
“I have learned a lot in this process up to now, and I hope you have learned something this evening,” he said.
Alemany requested that trustees start a process to change the name of the school and have that change complete by the start of the 2017-2018 year in conjunction with Canada’s 150th birthday.
Craig mentioned that Alemany had brought up the term “recommemorating,” and asked what he meant by the term.
Alemany explained, “I think this is an educational body.
“This is an opportunity for the community to learn about Mr. Neill’s legacy and through the process of reconciliation to learn about some of the harms that were committed and some of the history of that time.
“Rather than have his name on the school, you could have an educational space in the school, in the district to commemorate what happened and why the name was removed.”
Huu-ay-aht First Nations hawiih (hereditary chief) Jeff Cook stepped forward at the end of the meeting to say he hoped that the school board would consider the name change.
Cook, who attended a residential school in the Alberni Valley for 13 years, was upset with city council’s decision to withdraw the motion to change the name of Neill Street on Monday.
He said that people will adapt to a new name, and that they should not be afraid of change.