Both of these men served the bulk of their careers in public office, having been elected by the general public again and again and again.
Last year I told you about a failed movement in Port Alberni to rename A.W. Neil Elementary School which honours former city mayor, MLA and MP, Alan Webster Neil.
Mr. Neil has belatedly fallen out of favour for his oft-expressed vitriol (much of it preserved on public record) against Asian immigrants while also having championed working people, unemployment insurance and the original Canada Pension Plan.
But, these days, as in the much more publicized case of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald who’s been publicly debunked for his key role in creating residential schools, the positives no longer are thought to balance the negatives.
Coincidentally, a similar drama is being enacted in Victoria where support appears to be growing for changing the name of George Jay Elementary School. In this case, George Jay was the school board (1907-1934) chairman and police magistrate who vociferously opposed and actively resisted Chinese-Canadian children receiving a public education. He insisted that they pass an English test before being admitted, a challenge he made to no other nationality or ethnic group, and strongly promoted segregation.
Last month, the Times-Colonist reported that an online poll of 2,500 people conducted by the Greater Victoria School District indicated that 50 per cent of those who responded to the survey were in favour of dumping George Jay. Thirty-seven per cent were opposed and almost 13 per cent said they might be more supportive of change if they knew what the alternatives were.
You’d never know of any controversy by George Jay Elementary’s warm and fuzzy website: “Inclusive, warm and focused on the whole child, École George Jay connects children and their families to a world of learning and caring. It is a place where our students have an opportunity to learn and develop empathy and understanding in a school community as diverse as our society itself. [my italics—TW]. Our academic program is focused on the individual child’s learning needs and accomplished through caring teachers, use of technology and innovative approaches to learning.”
The school’s namesake, George Jay (1861-1940), must be spinning in his grave at such blasphemy!
Himself an immigrant, from Norfolk, England in the 1880s, the son of a Cariboo gold seeker, Jay became a lawyer, stipendiary magistrate in small claims court then police magistrate, and served on the school board in 1905 and then as board chairman for 27 years. Among his other accomplishments, Jay helped to establish a juvenile court and Victoria College (today’s University of Victoria).
Back in August, Nicole Crescenzi wrote for Black Press Media:
“He held several roles as a city magistrate, and was also instrumental in the establishment of Victoria College, which later became the University of Victoria [but] despite his impressive resume, he held darker tones as well.”
She cited the 2011 book, Contesting White Supremacy-School Segregation, Anti-racism and the Making of Chinese-Canadians, UBC Press, by author, historian and University of Ottawa professor Timothy J. Stanley who makes the case that George Jay “was instrumental in instilling racial segregation of Chinese-Canadians…”
According to Stanley, George Jay “suggested that the board return to its 1907 policy that no Chinese be admitted to the schools unless they know English sufficient to make them amenable to ordinary class room discipline,” and that “Chairman Jay had long made his career by advocating segregation and had in fact helped develop the 1907 policy.”
Jay’s push for segregation of all students of Chinese heritage — even those who spoke perfect English — “sparked a year-long strike from Victoria’s Chinese community”.
For all the turmoil, Jay had no problem with the christening of the new Princess Street elementary school in 1910 when it was named for himself!
None of this pleased George Jay Elementary Parent Advisory Council (PAC) president, Angela Cooper-Carmichael, who asked: “Isn’t it time to change these irrelevant colonial names? The land that George Jay sits on is unceded [sic], so it’s still the transitional land of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.”
“Student population is so diverse at George Jay now, but he [George Jay] wouldn’t have allowed half of our students to attend.”
Prompted by the information provided by Prof. Stanley, Cooper-Carmichael approached the Esquimalt and Songhees First Nations, the City of Victoria and Victoria’s Chinese community “for more input on what they think should be done,” before putting it before a meeting of the GVSD in September.
She told Black Press Media that her discussions with parents and representative members of the First Nations showed an interest in pursuing the name change.
Some of those who responded to the survey were opposed to “erasing history,” and others suggested choosing a new name that recognizes Chinese-Canadians and First Nations while acknowledging George Jay with a plaque.
Cooper-Carmichael insisted that her crusade isn’t about colonization: “We have a rich history that reaches far beyond George Jay and you and me, and that’s a history we should share.”
As of last month, according to the T-C, the GVSD is seeking community input on whether to rename the school so as to “better align with current district values and policies around diversity and inclusive-learning communities.”
We’ll have to wait to see how these dramas in Port Alberni and Victoria play out. But there’s something to keep in mind when we set out to “correct” our history, particularly in these two cases which are based upon posthumous rejection of Neil’s and Jay’s overt racism. Both of these men served the bulk of their careers in public office, having been elected by the general public again and again and again. Theirs weren’t voices in the wilderness — they had to have been expressing the latent sentiments of the majority of their constituents.
For this we can hold them personally accountable after the fact and demote them from public favour if not from memory. But let’s not ignore the silent quiescence of their generation. It was the so-called silent majority who kept Jay and Neil, out and out bigots that they were, in public office all those years.
Still think that history is just about ‘the old days’?