School name change in Prince George sparks community backlash

The name of a school that's still under construction in Prince George is causing some controversy in the community. 

When the school was first announced in 2017, it was designated Kelly Road Secondary, the same name as a school right next to it that the new building will ultimately replace. But this week, the school board unanimously voted to change the name of the school to Shas Ti Secondary, to reflect Indigenous traditions on that land. 

"We recognized that this was going to bring forward a whole bunch of different emotions," school board chair Tim Bennett said.

"I think we saw that over the past 30 hours."

Bennett and the school board have received emails, phone calls and text messages from people expressing their displeasure with the name change. A Facebook group for the Hart community, where the school is located, blew up with comments both for and against the naming of the school. 

Subsequently, students started protesting outside the current Kelly Road Secondary and an online petition was launched to keep the original name. 

Lheidli T'enneh Nation Chief Clay Pountney said his people brought the idea to the school board because they want to showcase their history in that area. 

"We're kind of reasserting ourselves, and it might be new to some people," he said. "Lheidli has been there for forever. It's always been our territory."

Betsy Trumpener/CBC

Shas Ti is the Dakelh term for 'Grizzly Trail' to represent the grizzlies that used to hunt in the area. 

Amanda Garden, a graduate of the original Kelly Road Secondary and now a parent of a current student at the school, told CBC she's against the name change because it would mean "changing generations of history" in the community.

"It's a huge part of our community," she said. "There's a lot of heart and soul at Kelly Road."

"If they've already changed the name secretly without talking to the kids, what else are they going to change?"

Nicole Oud/CBC

While Garden said she doesn't want this to be an issue around race, some comments on social media have been racially charged. 

Prince George Mayor Lynn Hall hasn't seen any racist comments, but he said he has certainly heard about them. 

"I am concerned by them," he told CBC's Betsy Trumpener. "[I'm] somewhat surprised by the comments."

Pountney said he certainly noticed racist comments online and called them hypocritical, because they happened on Feb. 26, Canada's anti-bullying day. 

Prince George lawyer and former NDP candidate Bobby Deepak posted on his Facebook page about how little opposition there was to the name change of the local hospital, from Prince George Regional hospital to University Hospital of Northern B.C. 

He noted that opposition tends to flare up when things are changed to a language other than English.  

Indigenous activist Cindy Blackstock also weighed in on social media, saying she went to Kelly Road Secondary, and is glad about the name change, because the current mascot, Roadrunner, never fit the tone of northern B.C.

Garden hopes the school district will consult the students of the current Kelly Road Secondary before moving forward with a name change. 

As Pountney points out, there are two histories in that area. 

"We have our history that's been there for thousands of years and there is a newer history, and we don't want to step on that either, so we're trying to find a way to collaborate to put them both together," he said. 

"A lot of people are just thinking that we're just forcing this," Pountney said. "It was an ask from us and our elders and our community to the district. They considered it and they made a motion to move forward with it. And it's a process to put it all together and collaborate to make sure this works together for everybody."

The school board has since issued a media release stating that there will be future consultations with the community. They even set up a designated email address for parents and students to send feedback to. 

"The board recognizes that we failed to properly consult the Kelly Road community," Bennett said. 

"We have some healing and relationship building to do with the community."