A Vancouver Island school named after a racist politician has been renamed to be culturally appropriate, and honour the land and local First Nations.
Children, staff and community members donning orange shirts gathered on Wednesday morning for a ceremony to rename A. W. Neill Elementary School in Port Alberni. The name of the school is now c̓uumaʕas Tsuma-as Elementary School. Tsuma-as is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the nearby Somass River, spelled as c̓uumaʕas in the Nuu-chah-nulth alphabet.
The official renaming comes just before the inaugural National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, an annual observance honouring Indigenous children who died at residential schools and the survivors, families and communities who continue to be affected by the damaging legacy of those facilities.
The school's former namesake, Alan Webster Neill, served the local settler community as a politician in a variety of roles from 1889 to 1945 including mayor of Port Alberni and MP for the riding of Comox-Alberni from 1921 to 1945. He supported Indian residential schools, anti-Chinese laws in the B.C. legislature and the internment of Japanese people during the Second World War.
Neill's home in Port Alberni included a restriction that it could never be sold to Asian people. The home's covenant was removed in 2019.
Neill died in 1960 at age 91.
Renaming the school was first brought up by school trustee Rosemarie Buchanan in 2015. At first, she says, there was little support, but she remained persistent in her efforts to have the name changed.
"It started us on this journey to where we are today, which is a racist name is off the school and we have a beautiful new name on it," she said.
The board had to develop a policy for school renaming and the COVID pandemic slowed the process down.
In 2020, the school board voted to remove Neill's name from the school.
In June of this year, the board voted unanimously to rename the school Tsuma-as Elementary School, a name Buchanan said local Indigenous people suggested.
After years of working to change the name, Buchanan said it was difficult not to get choked up during the official ceremony.
"I feel like it was Christmas Day," Buchanan said.
"It's just a huge gift after all the years of making sure we did it correctly."