Ontario teachers’ union wants John A. Macdonald elementary schools renamed
A call from an Ontario teacher’s union to remove the name of Canada’s first prime minister from all public elementary schools in the province is being heralded as a bold move by at least one Indigenous group, which says it is a necessary step in the path to reconciliation.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario passed a motion at its annual meeting last week that called on all school districts to rename schools and buildings named after Sir John A. Macdonald.
The union said it wants the name change because of what it calls Macdonald’s role as the “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples” and the impact that has on the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, parents and educators.
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Macdonald was prime minister during the time the federal government approved the first residential schools in the country.
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages,” Macdonald told the House of Commons in 1883. “Though he may learn to read and write he is simply a savage who can read and write. Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence.”
Thousands died in residential schools, buried in unmarked graves. Others were sexually and physically abused, returning to their communities alienated from their culture and haunted by demons that have been passed on through generations.
An activist from Idle No More, an Indigenous rights movement that aims to raise awareness on Indigenous issues, said the ETFO’s call for action on Macdonald’s name being used for schools was a move that was needed.
“I thought it was pretty bold, but a pretty progressive move,” said Tori Cress, a member of Idle No More’s Ontario Chapter.
Cress said removing Macdonald’s name from schools could help introduce more Indigenous education that focuses on Indigenous suffering at the hands of Canadian figures.
She said some people might find such a development hard to swallow, but added that people who equate name change with “erasing history” are wrong.
“It’s not erasing, it’s putting it in its proper place,” said Cress. “I don’t see how we should be glorifying folks like this in such a public place as schools.”
Felipe Pareja, the teacher who brought forward the motion, said it was contested at the union meeting before being voted on.
“It was a healthy debate, it was by no means one-sided,” said Pareja, a french teacher in the Peel District School Board. “But ultimately when the vote was called, the floor voted clearly to adopt the motion.”
Pareja said Macdonald’s part in establishing the Indian Act, as well as his part in Indigenous peoples’ suffering when their land was being taken for Canada’s national railway are “darker” sides of history that need to be addressed.
“There’s no doubt, they’re not comfortable things to talk about, but it doesn’t make them any less necessary to talk about and to acknowledge,” said Pareja. “This really is something that we see as being in the context of (truth and reconciliation) more than anything else.”
Pareja also said it might be difficult for Indigenous students and teachers to go to a school named after someone who he says was complicit in the genocide of Indigenous people.
The ETFO passed Pareja’s motion as a recommendation, which means it will now be up to different school boards across Ontario to decide whether they implement the change or not.
The Peel District School Board said it will be reaching out to the Ministry of Education for insight on the matter.
“As always, we will take what has been raised seriously and review the matter with our Indigenous leaders, staff, trustees, community partners, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and provincial colleagues,” it said in a statement.
The ETFO’s call comes after a student-led campaign at Toronto’s Ryerson University last month pushed for the school to change its name out of respect for residential school survivors.
The downtown university is named for Egerton Ryerson, a pioneer of public education in Ontario who is widely believed to have helped shape residential school policy through his ideas on education for Indigenous children.
And in June, the name of founding father Hector-Louis Langevin was stripped from the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office on Parliament Hill. Langevin argued for a separate school system with a specific mandate to assimilate Indigenous children.
Pareja said the Macdonald issue, if acted upon by school boards, wouldn’t be the first case of a motion in the teachers’ union leading to change.
Last year, he said a motion passed by the federation led to Chinguacousy Secondary School in Brampton, Ont. changing their sports teams’ names from the “Chinguacousy Chiefs,” because it was seen as hurtful to Indigenous people.
“There’s no attempt to erase or rewrite anything,” said Pareja. “This is about seeing history from a much more fulsome perspective, and considering how it can impact people differently.”
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