A Port Alberni school named for a residential school advocate who fought Japanese immigration and didn’t want Asians living in his house could be getting a new name.
Trustees for School District 70 (Alberni) are once again considering chaning the name of A.W. Neill Elementary School, which is named after Alan Webster Neill, a member of the House of Commons for Comox-Alberni from 1925-1945.
Lauded as a champion for Canada’s old age pension, Neill was also a vocal opponent of Japanese immigration to Canada. He was also an Indian Agent, helping to establish the first residential school in the Alberni Valley.
Just this year, it was discovered that Neill had a racist covenant placed on his house on Margaret Street, forbidding any person of Asian descent from living in it. The covenant was removed with the help of several high school students.
SD70 trustee Rosemarie Buchanan brought the issue of A.W. Neill Elementary to the school board in 2016, but it was met by backlash from the public. A street in Port Alberni is also named after Neill, but a motion to consider changing this was quickly defeated.
Three years later, the board is giving serious consideration to renaming the school.
“It’s been an ongoing concern for us,” explained superintendent Greg Smyth during a board meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 10. “We needed a mechanism by which we could review and change school names.”
Trustee Connie Watts explained on Tuesday that some weight has to be given to Indigenous input when it comes to A.W. Neill.
“That’s a big part that has to be considered,” she said.
Although Smyth said that “there have been some suggestions thrown out” for name changes, he doesn’t want to talk about specifics until consultation has taken place.
“We want to do this slowly and thoughtfully,” said Smyth. “We want people to know how we’re going to make this a transparent and inclusive process.”
The next school board meeting will be on the West Coast, where further discussion will take place.
Buchanan admitted that she had been “in a hurry” to change the school’s name back when it was first brought to the table in 2016, but she is glad that the board has taken a thoughtful and inclusive path by developing a policy first.
“It’s good timing,” she said after the board meeting on Tuesday.
“Neill was not a 100 percent bad person,” she acknowledged. “But with the percentage of Indigenous students at Neill…we need a name that reflects the values of the school district and the people who go to that school.”
She also suggested putting the history of the name on display at the school somewhere.
“People need to understand the reason, without losing the history,” she said.
New names for Ucluelet Secondary, school district itself?
The board adopted a ‘naming of schools’ policy in 2017, which includes an administrative procedure outlining steps to either name or rename a school.
The policy states that schools will generally not be named after individuals. Instead, criteria will consider the name of the street on which the school is located, the name of the community or region the school will serve or an historical name that is connected to the area.
A.W. Neill Elementary School isn’t the only school being reviewed under the new policy. Name changes are being considered for Ucluelet Secondary School (USS), as well as the school district itself. Both of these name changes are for geographic reasons, said Smyth. Although USS is located in Ucluelet, it also serves as the secondary school for students in Tofino. School District 70 Alberni, meanwhile, fails to capture the whole region, and doesn’t acknowlege schools in the district that are located on the West Coast.
For all three name changes, consultation will take place with city councils, parent advisory councils, staff and students, as well as members of the public.
“I think it’s time for us to move forward on that consultation process,” said Smyth.