Sir John A. Macdonald High School near Halifax changing its name to be more inclusive

·3 min read

HALIFAX — The principal of Sir John A. Macdonald High School outside Halifax confirmed Thursday the school's name will be changed because of the role Canada's first prime minister played in developing the residential school system.

Darlene Fitzgerald said a letter would be sent to parents describing how Macdonald's school policy for Indigenous children and passage of the Indian Act in 1867 caused irreparable harm to generations of Indigenous people.

"I truly feel that Indigenous students, when they see that name up above, it's not giving them full inclusion," Fitzgerald told The Canadian Press. "This is really a no-brainer for me."

The priority for the school, which has just over 1,000 students, is creating an inclusive environment, she said. The school has about 30 Indigenous students.

All students were told about the change on Thursday.

"We strive every day to make sure that every student that walks through our door feels like they belong," Fitzgerald said. "When you have a name like Sir John A. (Macdonald), and you have Indigenous students, that's tough."

When asked if she was worried about being accused of erasing a historic link to one of the Fathers of Confederation, Fitzgerald said: "It's always 'students first' for me."

The first government-funded, church-run residential schools opened in the 1870s. The last one closed outside Regina in 1996.

In all, about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children attended residential schools. For those Indigenous families who resisted the system, children were forcibly taken away by the RCMP.

The 130 schools became infamous for being places where many students suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse. 

They were also known for overcrowding, poor sanitation, unhealthy food and menial labour. Harsh punishment was meted out for those students who spoke their native language or took part in traditional rituals.

In December 2015, the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the cruel history and legacy of the schools, concluding they were devoted to "cultural genocide."

Last month, a board of trustees approved a decision by Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., to remove Macdonald's name from its law school building, ending a months-long process that began after a petition gathered support.

Fitzgerald said she has been thinking about a name change since she became principal at the school in Upper Tantallon, N.S., almost four years ago.

After debate over the name picked up during the summer, she made a pitch to teachers and the school advisory council, which includes parents, students, teachers, support staff, vice-principals and the principal.

On Nov. 4, the 13-member council voted unanimously to drop the former prime minister's name and start a process to select a new moniker that won't alienate Indigenous students.

Until Nov. 26, students, parents, staff and community members will be invited to submit suggestions for a new name, which will be subject to certain school board criteria.

A committee will then narrow the list to about 10 to 15 names, and the students will be asked to select the top 3 through a vote. Those three names will then be submitted to the Halifax Regional Centre for Education for a final decision, though no deadline has been set.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020

Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press