The School District 70 (Pacific Rim) board of education will not be renaming AW Neill Elementary School after the late Winston Joseph, but they are hoping to find another way to honour his memory.
In early 2020, the board voted unanimously to remove the name “AW Neill” from the elementary school due to Neill’s role as an Indian Agent in Port Alberni and because of his racist attitude towards Asian immigrants. Although a new name was not selected at the time, the board had already adopted a policy stating that schools will generally not be named after individuals.
After this vote, the board began the process of consulting with the Port Alberni community about a new name for the school. On May 11, 2021, the board gathered virtually to discuss this process.
Superintendent Greg Smyth said that AW Neill’s PAC and students have each been consulted twice. Elected councils for Tseshaht First Nation and Hupacasath First Nation have also provided their feedback and suggestions.
The board also received a petition with more than 600 signatures, encouraging the board to rename the school after the late teacher and community leader Winston Joseph. Joseph, who taught at Neill for 22 years, passed away in April of this year at the age of 89.
Smyth explained on Tuesday that while the board does have the ability to rename a school after a worthy individual, all formal consultation that has already taken place has “consistently referenced” the fact that the school will not be named after an individual.
“I would suggest that the board needs to go back and re-engage with others, such as the school community and the local First Nations, with expanded parameters,” said Smyth.
Trustee Connie Watts said she was happy with the process that has taken place so far and didn’t feel comfortable re-opening those discussions.
“I think the process is feeling so good right now with the names that have been given,” she said. “People’s engagement with naming the school seems to have brought the community together, which I think is what we’re looking for.”
Trustee Rosemarie Buchanan agreed with Watts and suggested doing something else to honour Joseph.
“Absolutely I think the board and the district needs to do something significant to honour [Joseph], but…we need to honour the process that we have really put a lot of effort into over the last few years,” said Buchanan.
“I think we need to keep moving forward with the process that we’ve started,” added trustee Chris Washington.
Board chair Pam Craig said that the board will select a new name for the school by June so that it can be ready for the new school year in September.
Two of the most suggested names are Compton and Kitsuksis, after the streets that border AW Neill. Others have suggested Arrowsmith or Tsumaas, which is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River.