A Port Alberni elementary school named after a controversial figure from the city’s past has been renamed with a Nuu-chah-nulth name.
School District 70 Pacific Rim voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 8 to change the name of A.W. Neill Elementary School to Tsuma-as Elementary School.
Tsuma-as (pronounced SOO-mahs) is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River.
The school board first voted to rename the school back in 2020, after years of discussion and the adoption of a name-changing policy.
The school was named after Alan Webster Neill, who was an Alberni mayor, a member of the B.C. Legislature and an MP for Comox-Alberni from 1921-1945.
But before he was elected MP, he was a federal Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island and was involved in the operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School.
Neill was also vocally racist against those of Asian heritage, making multiple efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants. His own home in Port Alberni included a covenant stating that no Asians were allowed to live there, except as servants. The covenant was finally removed in 2019.
The school board undertook a long consultation process, talking to the school’s PAC and students, as well as elected councils for Tseshaht First Nation and Hupacasath First Nation, before changing the name of the school.
SD70 superintendent Greg Smyth said that Tsuma-as is a well-known, common name in the community with a simple pronunciation.
The name “Kitsuksis” was also considered, as it is the name of the street bordering the school. But Smyth said that Tsuma-as has a “deeper meaning” to local First Nations.
“As much as I like Kitsuksis, I know that we were talking about honouring the larger community, including the Japanese-Canadian community,” said trustee Connie Watts, who is also a member of Tseshaht First Nation.
Watts explained that the Somass River is her nation’s connection to the rest of the world.
“It’s about recognizing Tsuma-as as a real connecting force,” she said.
Trustees voted unanimously to change the name of the school to Tsuma-as. Trustees are hoping the new name will be in place for the upcoming school year in September 2021. The school board is still in the process of confirming the proper spelling of the name before submitting the name change to the Ministry of Education, said Smyth.
Trustee Rosemarie Buchanan, who first brought her concerns about the name to the school board back in 2016, offered a thank you to everyone who has been involved in the process.
“Some of the people are saying you’re trying to change history,” she said. “No, we are correcting incorrect history. History should not be written from the viewpoint of the ‘conquerers.’ It needs to be written truthfully. I think this is a small but significant move in that direction.”
Buchanan has said she hopes a plaque can be set up at the school that explains why the name was changed.