Trustee calls for Vancouver school to be renamed after Chinese-Canadian leader

Won Alexander Cumyow (left) sitting with the Chinese Empire Reform Association which he founded.
Won Alexander Cumyow (left) sitting with the Chinese Empire Reform Association which he founded. City of Vancouver Archives

A Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustee wants to see the city’s newest school renamed in honour of a historic Chinese-Canadian leader.

Allan Wong is taking a motion calling for Crosstown Elementary to be renamed after Won Alexander Cumyow to the board next week.

The name “Crosstown” was chosen last December by then-sole trustee Dianne Turner from a list of options, and the VSB is currently working on a dual Indigenous name for the facility.

But the choice was slammed by critics, who argued the board missed an opportunity to reflect the historic contributions of women and minorities.

WATCH: Sneak Peek inside Vancouver’s newest elementary school

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Sneak Peek inside Vancouver’s newest elementary school

Other rejected names on the list included Helena Gutteridge, the first woman elected to Vancouver city council, and Nellie McClung, who successfully fought for the right for women to sit in the senate.

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Crosstown Elementary is located on the edge of Chinatown, near the intersection of Expo Boulevard and Carrall Street. Wong said that’s right were Cumyow lived and worked, making him the ideal choice.

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“If you walk kitty-corner from the school you’ll reach Shanghai Alley. So just a block away. And in there, there’s six large plaques from Heritage Canada. Two of those six plaques have Alexander Cumyow on it,” Wong said.

READ MORE: B.C. apologizes to Chinese Canadians

Cumyow was born in Port Douglas in 1861, and is believed to be the first person of Chinese descent born in what is now Canada.

“He’s the only Chinese to be able to cast a ballot in the elections before and after disenfranchisement,” said Wong.

Provincial and later federal legislation explicitly denied Chinese-Canadians the right to vote in the 19th century, which was only repealed in 1947.

WATCH: Historic apology offered to Chinese Canadians in BC Legislature

Cumyow also served as a president of the Chinese Benevolent Association, and Wong said he was an early voice for equality.

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“He was a connection with the Aboriginal community, he spoke a number of Chinese dialects as well as Aboriginal Chinook jargon,” said Wong.

“He was also a member of a group of people, including Nellie Yip, who fought for the Chinese, to ensure that they could go to Vancouver hospitals and they did not have to be treated in the basement.”

The City of Vancouver recently apologized for historic wrongs against Chinese Canadians, and Wong said while the timing would be harmonious, it’s not the driving factor behind his motion.

“There are over 110 schools in Vancouver. Not one is named after someone with an Asian heritage,” he said.

Wong said he’s bringing his motion to the board on Monday.

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