A proposal to change the name of an elementary school in Port Alberni has turned into a larger conversation about reconciliation in the Alberni Valley, and the significance of a name.
In the spring of 2016, Rosemarie Buchanan, a trustee for School District 70 and a liaison for A.W. Neill Elementary School, received a message on Facebook asking her if she knew the history of A.W. Neill.
“And I didn’t!” she said. “So I did a little research, and I can’t find any mention of good things that he’s done. He was a reprehensible racist.”
Alan Webster Neill was a member of the House of Commons for Comox-Alberni from 1925-1945, during which he was a vocal opponent of Japanese immigration to Canada, pushing for the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. He was also the Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island from 1903-1913 and supported the residential school system in the Alberni-Clayoquot region.
“He had nothing kind to say about First Nations children,” said Buchanan. “And with the war in Japan, it was an opportunity for him to flaunt how racist he really was.
“The more I read about him and his comments, the more it struck me that this is not someone we should be honouring by having his name on a public school.”
Buchanan was especially alarmed given Port Alberni’s relationship with its sister city, Abashiri, Japan. “There’s a lot of history there,” she said. “It’s a good relationship. I can’t help but wonder what one of those delegates would think if they found out we were honouring this kind of person.”
Buchanan brought the issue to the school board in the spring, although she says that no decisions have been made at this time.
City Councillor Chris Alemany recognized that Neill Street was also named after A.W. Neill, and began working on a motion to bring to city council. He wants to change the name of the street, as well as Indian Avenue.
“I realized that the school district was starting to move forward with that, and the thought was to bring it forward in the new year,” he said.
A letter that he sent to a select few people for input regarding the name change was leaked to the PEAK radio station, and the story made its way online, where it quickly received backlash on a number of Facebook posts—tallying up hundreds of comments by the end of the day.
Last summer, city council brought forward a motion to change the names of Third Avenue, Gertrude Street and Stamp Avenue by amalgamating them into one.
Council ultimately decided to keep the names the same after receiving public input.
Alemany said he doesn’t have the answers for some of the questions being raised regarding the cost of this project.
“At this point I only have the information from the Third Avenue name change. It’s such a preliminary stage that there isn’t much information.” Alemany said that he plans to have more of that information when it is brought to council as a motion on Jan. 23.
The motion, said Alemany, will not make any decision, but determine whether or not this is a discussion council wants to have.
The Third Avenue name change was proposed because some found the street signs confusing. This proposed name change would be driven largely by reconciliation.
Alemany has been working with a number of other people, including members of the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations and the school board. He also plans to bring the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council and residents who live along the streets into the discussion. “Basically anyone who’s affected,” he said.
He also expressed interest in getting in touch with the Port Alberni International Twinning Society.
“It’s a wider conversation,” said Alemany. “It’s more about the question of honouring names.
“When you deal with sensitive issues like this, you want to make sure you don’t catch anybody off guard, so that when we bring it to the public they’re well-informed.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a final report in 2015, in which about a dozen voices reported from their experiences at Port Alberni residential schools. Alemany talked about this document.
“I think it’s one of the things that has driven me,” said Alemany. “Just going through that report, it’s terrible. It’s awful. It’s something we as a community have to address in a comprehensive, compassionate way.”
He said he doesn’t know for sure if this is the right way to go about addressing it, but thinks the name change is a start.
“It’s hard to know how to go about it, but you have to get started somewhere. We have to do our work with reconciliation as a part of that.”
Ken Miller, a resident of Port Alberni for 80 years now, had some concerns about changing historical names.
“Neill was elected for 20 years,” Miller said. “To stay in office that long, he must have been doing something right.
“When you start changing the names of things, you’re saying that [the people who voted for him] were all wrong also. I don’t think that’s right.”
Miller created a page on Facebook against the name changes with almost 300 supporters, but it was deleted.
Jolleen Dick, an elected councillor for the Hupacasath First Nation, supported Alemany taking this step forward.
“I appreciated his initiative for reaching out,” said Dick. “I think it’s worthwhile to propose a name change.”
With regards to Indian Avenue, she said the street is on the Hupacasath Reserve, and that they have spoken to and collaborated with residents.
“After surveying them, they don’t find it offensive,” she said. “They’ve grown up with it, that’s the reality for them.”
Cynthia Dick, the elected Chief Councillor of the Tseshaht First Nation, said that both the suggestions for the elementary school and the two streets have been brought to the Tseshaht’s attention. The band put forward a bulletin in December for members to suggest names for Neill Elementary.
“I think it’s really significant for that school to have a really good name,” said Dick. “Some of what was being said online, it’s more than just in the past. We need to think of it in a different perspective, like how do we move forward and give the students a name they can be proud of.”
When it came to the street names, she was disappointed to see a lack of discussion in the comments online.
“I don’t think people should be as against it when we don’t have all the information yet,” she said. “Even if this doesn’t move forward, I don’t want this conversation to stop here. I definitely encourage any steps forward in reconciliation.”
Of the negative comments on social media, Buchanan said, “The trolls and the naysayers are always way more vocal.
“We are an enlightened and better educated society now,” said Buchanan. “You can’t support somebody who talked the way he talked, then turn around and tell me you support reconciliation. You have to walk the reconciliation walk.”
If given the choice, Buchanan wants to suggest a new name for A.W. Neill Elementary School that is not attached to a person.