Work underway to unmask racist policy maker and rename George Jay Elementary school

·5 min read

Work is underway to rename a Victoria elementary school that’s currently designated after a former school board chairman who advocated for racist segregation policies.

Angela Carmichael, a concerned parent and advocate for racial equality, is part of a committee that’s working to find a new name for George Jay Elementary School.

Carmichael says she is motivated to continue the work to remove George Jay’s name from the school despite receiving “hate mail” from people who are against the change.

“I am going to see it through,” she says.

“[I’m] appalled at who George Jay was … I want to bring it to light because I think it’s a step in the direction of reconciliation. We can’t reconcile if we don’t acknowledge.”

Jay is known for being a former longtime school board chairman in the early 1900s who was also instrumental in the establishment of what’s now the University of Victoria.

However, it’s recently come to light that Jay advocated for a segregation policy that forced students of colour to attend schools separate from white children.

Former student Jon Joe (Chow) is Chinese-Canadian and the father of Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe. He says he attended a non-white school for two years that was referred to as the “chicken house.”

The school was given that title because there was a person raising chickens nearby, he explains during an interview with his daughter in Sept. 2014.

“By the time I got to Grade 2 and 3 they started putting the non-white (children) in the school where the arena is,” he says, referring to what’s now the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in downtown Victoria.

In a post on Victoria’s Chinatown website, history instructor Jenny Clayton writes that in 1907, Jay initiated a regulation that made it so that Chinese students had to pass an English exam to attend public schools — a rule that did not apply to white students from German, Dutch or French families who spoke English as a second language. Clayton teaches history at Camosun College in Victoria.

She writes that the Chinese Public School (Hauqiao Gongli Xuexiao) opened in 1909, and students were able to be educated in both Chinese and English, however segregation continued in the 1920s as the school board came up with new policies to divide students of colour.

“It was only after the Second World War that students of Chinese origin were fully integrated into public schools in Victoria,” according to the website.

Carmichael says she was surprised after learning of the history from reading a book called Contesting White Supremacy; School Segregation, Anti-Racism, and the Making of Chinese Canadians by Timothy Stanley.

She took her concerns to School District 61, and after “several strongly-worded emails” the district agreed to conduct a survey in February 2019, she says.

The engagement summary report of the survey indicated that there were enough people in the community who wanted more information or the name outright changed. A committee was formed to conduct consultations with parents and community members and present findings to the Board of Education.

Indiginews reached out to School District 61 for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication of this article.

The district has acknowledged previously, however, that Jay was a problematic figure, saying on its website that he “championed segregationist policies with regard to Chinese Canadian students while he was chair of the school board from 1907-1934.”

Current board Chairman Jordan Watters says in an earlier statement that the district does not condone the racist historic practices of their predecessors.

“As we develop a better understanding of institutional racism and the role of the education system, it’s essential that we have conversations as a community in order to determine the best way to address historical wrongs and forge a positive path forward,” he says.

The Greater Victoria School District did a community survey, and their qualitative survey results show that out of 2,494 responses, 50 per cent were in support of renaming the school while 37 per cent did not support the name change, and 13 per cent said they would support the renaming if they were made aware of new naming options.

The district’s website states that it is always looking to ensure that school names align with their values and policies around diversity and inclusiveness and believes that it is essential to listen to the community to help the Board of Education make informed decisions going forward.

“I think that the majority of people who didn’t want the name change, if they knew the segregation policies, if they knew the absolute racial hatred that was behind this, then they would change their minds,” Carmichael says. “That’s the problem, people do not know who George Jay was.”

Carmichael says she hopes to see the school renamed to something that reflects the unceded land that the school sits on. She says as it currently stands, the name George Jay is sending a bad message to the diverse students who attend the school.

“That school is a beautiful rainbow and to know that they are all united under a name who would have separated them bothers me a lot,” she says.

Carmichael is white, and says she has worked to teach her children that everyone is equal, and that racism is wrong.

“The only way to turn them into humans that I can be proud of is to make sure that they understand that,” she says. “You have no right to judge somebody based on things they cannot control and that is exactly what George Jay did.”

Those serving on the name change committee are Carmichael, George Jay Principal Melanie Postle, Kindergarten teacher Ai Lin Trinh, SD61 Superintendent Deb Whitten, SD61 Chairwoman and Trustee Angie Hentze Chair, District Administrator of Indigenous Education Shelly Niemi, and author and former teacher Bob Warren.

The committee is tasked with interviewing community members and reaching out to organizations such as the Chinese Benevolent Society and the Songhees First Nation whose lands the school sits on.

The George Jay renaming committee is having its third meeting in April, and will be organizing community meetings, staff interviews and more.

Katłįà (Catherine) Lafferty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse