Students, Indigenous community members demand renaming of Calgary school

Click to play video: 'Protestors call on Calgary’s public school board to reconsider ‘racist’ names, mascots'
Protestors call on Calgary’s public school board to reconsider ‘racist’ names, mascots
WATCH: As the world marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Calgary's public school board is back under the microscope. Protestors are calling on the Calgary Board of Education to rethink some controversial names and mascots. Sarah Offin explains. – Mar 21, 2023

Students and Indigenous community members gathered in front of the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) office on Tuesday to demand the renaming of Sir John A. Macdonald School.

Last April, the CBE board of trustees formed a name review committee for the school. While the name will be reviewed by the committee, the final decision to change the school name lies with the board of trustees.

Last year, the board said it is important that the school’s name be reviewed because of Macdonald’s complex history. Macdonald, who was Canada’s first prime minister, authorized residential schools in 1883, leading to the abuse and deaths of Indigenous children across the country.

Macdonald’s officials also withheld rations from Indigenous nations until they agreed to sign treaties that relinquished their traditional lands and forced their people to move to reserves.

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Makena Halvorsen, a Grade 9 student at John A. Macdonald School, said she petitioned the school to change its name after she learned about Macdonald’s history during a school project.

Halvorsen recalled news about Indigenous nations uncovering hundreds of potential unmarked graves at former residential school sites around Canada and said the school’s name reflected intergenerational harm within Indigenous communities.

However, she is frustrated at how slow the process is.

“It feels like the CBE doesn’t really care. If it was really their top priority, it would have already been changed,” Halvorsen told Global News.

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“But still today a lot of people from my school are suffering.”

Protesters also talked about the inappropriate use of Indigenous symbols and culture in schools across Calgary.

Fernanda Ortiz, an Indigenous student of Mayan descent at John G. Diefenbaker High School, said she was appalled when she saw that the school’s logo included an Indigenous headdress.

Click to play video: 'Indigenous leaders celebrate renaming of Calgary school that used to commemorate ‘architect of residential schools’'
Indigenous leaders celebrate renaming of Calgary school that used to commemorate ‘architect of residential schools’

For many Indigenous nations, headdresses symbolize strength and bravery and are often worn by the most powerful and influential members.

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Ortiz and a group of other students wrote a letter asking the CBE to change the school’s logo. However, the school continues to use the logo.

“The headdress represents thousands of years of ceremony and sacred traditions. It’s really disturbing to see it printed on shirts, ads and floors,” Ortiz said.

“It turns it into a joke and a caricature and a funny trope. It’s wrong on so many levels.”

In a statement to Global News, the CBE said it is committed to addressing systemic racism and promoting equitable learning environments for students.

“There is no room for racism or discrimination in any of our schools or workplaces, and the CBE has taken significant steps in the past few years to address systemic racism and promote equitable and inclusive learning and working environments,” said CBE board chair Laura Hack.

“We recognize more needs to be done and we are listening and learning so we can continue to do better.”

Premier Danielle Smith said in an unrelated news conference on Tuesday that it is up to the CBE to decide on the school’s name.

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However, she said she is concerned about the “erasure” of portions of Canadian history.

“Not all of our prime ministers were perfect people,” she told reporters.

“I do get concerned about erasing portions of our history because I do think it’s important that we understand the rights and the wrongs that all of our prime ministers did. It is part of Canadian history.

“We have to look things squarely in the eye when things happen that we wouldn’t approve of today… I think that the cancellation of some of these historical figures works against that.”

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