Some (hopefully) Final Thoughts After 4+ Years of Thinking, Listening and Learning
Sometime in 2018, I was made aware that the name of our school was problematic. In our case, it was a significant issue because the man our school was named after did some terrible things. Over 100 years ago, those same horrific actions had made him a hero. Naming places after people is problematic. Time changes places and people, changes cultures.
The more I learned and the more I listened, it became clear that we needed to replace his name with something else. But what is a suitable replacement? How do we figure it out? What do parents care about? What is in a name? In a place?
As a product manager, my mind jumps to: what is the function of a school name? What does it need to do? While I’ve had a lot of thoughts about this, they have mostly settled around a core concept based on clarity of location. It goes something like this:
A school name should reflect the community and land it is in with such clarity that parents’ friends know where to gather for school-based events (first day of kindergarten, sports game, fundraiser, meeting, community coming together).
The Vancouver School Board guidelines about a new name are helpful because they center naming around places, not people. That’s a good start, but what next?
I started with a focus on simplicity; let’s call our school West End Elementary. It is clear. I wrote a few articles about it.
At the same time, I support the idea of an indigenous name. I believe deeply in acts of reconciliation and recognize that they need to start with colonizers. So I have ideas, but I care less about my ideas and more about getting it right for the people who have lived here for so long that I can’t even imagine how long that time has been.
I have not supported dual names. A former teacher and friend of mine from Crosstown šxʷwəq̓ʷəθət complained to me that having an English name and a Musquem name had led to a two-tier naming system. The white families called it Crosstown. Uh-oh.
It is also clear that the gift of a name is a significant act that requires time, thought, and a lot of work from elders in multiple nations. Sometimes it takes time to build a beautiful thing. Sometimes it feels like we’re asking people our ancestors stole the land from to solve our problems.
And my job is to represent parents, so listening to them is the key focus of my role as the parent representative on the re-naming committe.
Parent feedback revolves around words like diversity, fun, inclusivity, family and openness. We also get consistent requests that the name be grounded in traditional names of the place that have existed long before colonization. Parents have also shared that they want the new name now or at least soon.
At the last PAC meeting of our 2022/23 school year Morgan Geurin, a knowledge keeper with the Musquem, spoke to parents outside in the garden space at the school. He was eloquent, informative, funny and brought meaningful insight into the conversation. I (“we” from what I heard from other parents) am thankful for his time and perspective.
No one knows more about our land, our unceded territories, than the knowledge keepers of the coast salish people in the area. So listening to a knowledge keeper is essential to the naming journey.
Some of what stood out to me from Morgan’s talk and his answers to questions was:
- The indigenous names for people and earth are tightly related. The people are born from the earth; of the earth, there is no separation between the people and the land.
- The names given to the area also place the area in time. People have lived here for over 9000 years, so the name used describes a time in history as much as a place in the neighbourhood.
- The act of reconciliation is ongoing. It is not about one name, and having two names (the Crosstown example was used) is okay, as long as both names are treated with equal respect and there is no hierarchy.
- The Musqeum and Squamish people have the beautiful problem that their time is much desired that districts like ours (and Burnaby and Richmond and Delta and more) want help with names (and more). This means that the gift of a name will take time both because of the volume of requests and the thoughtful, deep knowledge and work that goes into it.
He shared so much more, but this note is already too long.
This has been my journey. As I listen and learn. I think I have figured out my ideal scenario. I don’t yet know if it is possible, but so far it is aligned to by the many parents I have heard from.
I hope that:
- In the near term (sooner rather than later), we name the School West End Elementary. As a parent said at the meeting, this will be shortened by users to WEE. Say it, “We”. The West End is famous for its rich history of inclusion and diversity. It is famously a fun and beautiful place. This speaks to me deeply and acknowledges the core trends parents have identified.
- At the same time, we request the gift of an indigenous name. We give this the space and time it needs without the pressure of “what will our name be, and when will we get it?!”. The pressure of” We don’t want to call our school after a guy who ran concentration camps anymore” will have already been removed.
- When we receive our new indigenous name, we celebrate it along with West End Elementary. The indigenous name grounds us in the history of here, while West End smiles at us from the present.
- We teach the name. We learn the name. We share the name. We are proud, so proud of what it all means.
- I imagine parents shorten our new name to WE followed by the indigenous name. I imagine us embracing the idea that we, the people, the school, are of the land and use the combination of names to say this clearly to our children and our future ancestors.
What do you think?