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Elementary school in Port Alberni given Nuu-chah-nulth name

Tsuma-as is the new name for the school formerly known as AW Neill

The rain poured down on Tsuma-as Elementary School in Port Alberni as the school officially received its new name.

Greg Smyth, the superintendent for School District 70 (Pacific Rim), said it was “fitting” that the renaming ceremony took place during a rainstorm, since the school was named after a river.

“I’m sure right now Tsuma-as the river is swelling with pride,” he said on Wednesday, Sept. 29.

The ceremony on Wednesday officially unveiled a new name for the school formerly known as “A.W. Neill.” The new name, c’uuma?as or Tsuma-as (pronounced SOO-mahs), is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River.

Representatives from Tseshaht First Nation, Hupacasath First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council all gave their support for the school’s new name. The unveiling ceremony ended with Tsuma-as students singing a Nuu-chah-nulth celebration song, with help from Nuu-chah-nulth education worker Aaron Watts.

Tseshaht’s elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh Ken Watts presented several gifts to school district representatives.

“For some people, it might just mean a name of a school,” Watts said. “But for me and for many others, it’s a lot more than that. Today is a day that shows that the world is changing. Today the school district has done more than just a simple territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of an event.”

The name of the school was officially changed back in June 2021, after years of discussion, public engagement—including consultation with local First Nations—and the adoption of a name-changing policy. The school was previously named after Alan Webster Neill, who was an Alberni mayor, a member of the B.C. Legislature and an MP for Comox-Alberni.

But Neill was also a federal Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island and was involved in the operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School. He was also vocally racist against those of Asian heritage, making multiple efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants.

Tseshaht First Nation elected councillor Nasimius Ed Ross explained on Wednesday that the new name, Tsuma-as, means “little creek running all over the ground.” The name was associated with “cleansing” as the autumn rains swelled the river and washed away the remains of fish on the shore during salmon spawning season.

The renaming process began more than a decade ago, when former Port Alberni resident Christopher Stevenson was doing research for a history paper and learned a bit about A.W. Neill and his support for Japanese internment during the Second World War. He reached out to School District 70 trustee Rosemarie Buchanan, who brought her concerns to the school board.

Smyth also acknowledged the research of Prof. Ian Baird, whose account of A.W. Neill’s history helped the school board’s renaming process. For the last few years, he said, the school district has been looking backwards at a troubled past—and looking forward to a more promising future.

READ MORE: SD70 chooses new name for AW Neill School in Port Alberni

“[A.W. Neill’s] treatment of Asian-Canadians and his support for Indian residential schools did not fit with the [school] district’s values and was not worthy of a school name,” Smyth said. “Tsuma-as the river has been a social, cultural and economic life source for those who have lived on its banks for years. Tsuma-as the school is a similar place of shared community and shared learning.”

Many speakers during Wednesday’s ceremony were former students at Tsuma-as and shared their memories of the school and its teachers.

Wally Samuel, a residential school survivor and a former student at A.W. Neill when it was a junior high, said that Neill School was a “good place” for him as a child because it got him out of the residential school.

“We didn’t know what the name meant,” he said. “It didn’t matter to us back then. But now it matters. Many of us didn’t understand the names that we grew up with.”

The ceremony took place the day before the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation so that school students would be able to take part in it.

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Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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