Discussion on Langevin School renaming struck down at Calgary school board meeting

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Talks to rename a northeast Calgary school have hit a wall after a motion to debate the renaming was defeated at a board of trustees meeting. Adam MacVicar reports. – Mar 10, 2021

A discussion about the renaming of Langevin School was voted down by Calgary Board of Education trustees at their board meeting on Tuesday.

Trustee Richard Hehr, who represents Wards 8 and 9, brought forward a motion to discuss the potential renaming of the school but the request was ruled out of order by board chair Marilyn Dennis.

Dennis told Hehr that there is a process in place to get items added to the agenda, and the matter will be debated in the future.

“This very important matter of school renaming is scheduled to come before the board for discussion imminently,” Dennis told the board.

Hehr challenged the ruling, but his challenge was defeated. Only Hehr and Wards 11 and 13 trustee Julie Hrdlicka were opposed to the chair’s ruling.

The school is named after Hector-Louis Langevin, known as one of the fathers of Confederation and a proponent of the residential school system while he served as minister of public works in John A. Macdonald’s government.

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‘Moving towards truth and reconciliation’

The call to rename the school in Bridgeland has been ongoing for years.

More recently, a group of students at the school have taken it upon themselves to continue advocating for change through writing letters to the boards’ trustees.

Read more: National Indigenous Day sparks conversation on racism, reconciliation in Calgary

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small part in the bigger picture but it signifies moving towards truth and reconciliation,” Langevin School Grade 8 student Zach Helfenbaum said Wednesday.

His younger brother Seth is in Grade 5 at the school and is also hopeful for a name change after learning about the school’s namesake and the impacts of the residential school system.

“Most people don’t think of who the school was named after. They just think about the school itself but the name does also matter,” he said.

‘Big picture of systemic racism’

Students also presented their call to rename the school at a board meeting of trustees last month.

Michelle Robinson, an Indigenous woman of Sahtu Dene descent, connected with the Helfenbaum family on social media and is now working with a committee to rename the school.

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She said her daughter is interested in sciences but she is concerned about sending her daughter to a school named after somebody involved in residential schools.

“For me, this is the huge, big picture of systemic racism that has been embedded in colonialism,” Robinson said.

“I just hope the Calgary Board of Education can find its processes and protocols, and properly put this forward.”

The CBE did not respond to Global News’ request for comment.

The recent push to rename the school caught the attention of the area’s councillor, Gian-Carlo Carra, who penned a letter to the board expressing his support to change the name.

The City of Calgary changed the downtown bridge name from Langevin to Reconciliation Bridge in 2017.

Read more: Calgary’s Reconciliation Bridge renamed: ‘We can’t change the past but we are not prisoners of it’

Carra said when the city decided to change the name, there were no formal processes in place but the work was done in the spirit of the action. He said he was surprised to learn the same work wasn’t being done by the school board.

“I have no idea who is so invested in their current processes that they’re not willing to pursue the spirit as opposed to the letter of their governing laws,” Carra said. “I have no idea why the school board isn’t similarly motivated in this time of truth and reconciliation.”

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‘Still remain savages’

Langevin’s role in the creation of the residential school system has been widely debated.

Many point to Langevin’s comments in the House of Commons on May 22, 1883, during a budget debate.

“The fact is if you wish to educate these children, you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family, they may know how to read and write but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes — it is to be hoped only the good tastes — of civilized people,” Langevin said, according to official Hansard of the session.

Historians say Langevin’s comments were in support of a speech Macdonald gave in the House of Commons weeks earlier proposing the residential school system.

According to Sean Carleton, assistant professor of history and native studies at the University of Manitoba, Langevin was not the architect of residential schools but was a staunch supporter of the practice.

“That still is grounds for potentially changing the name of a school today named after him,” Carleton said.

“It’s about asking people to consider the variety of people involved in supporting and defending a genocidal school system for over 100 years. That requires us to think about Langevin as not the person, and therefore, we should change it because he was the person, but rather, he was a key proponent and supporter of that system.

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“We should be critically re-evaluating all of these important politicians that also supported nefarious policies against Indigenous people in Canada.”

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