York Region school board to revisit school renaming policy
Feb. 17, 2021
Seventeen-year-old Sydney Baxter has been a student in the York Region District School Board since kindergarten, and she says she hasn’t seen herself in the curriculum.
Her textbooks have lacked diversity, as have her school assignments -- things Baxter, who is just months away from graduation, says have had a devastating impact over the years.
That’s why the current renaming of what was formerly called Vaughan Secondary School holds deep meaning for her and thousands of other students in the board.
The school is being renamed after groups, including the Vaughan African Canadian Association and Parents of Black Children, campaigned last year to have Benjamin Vaughan’s name stripped from the building because he was an 18th century British slave owner.
“If I was in a school and I knew it was named after someone who wanted me literally in chains, I would not feel happy about that,” said Baxter. “We’re not going to uphold these racist, white slave owners anymore.”
Last month, the results of a months-long community consultation showed a plurality of residents want to name the school after Hodan Nalayeh. The late journalist was a Somali-Canadian woman who lived in the area and was known for writing about youth and women in the Somali diaspora.
But then, Trustee David Sherman alleged the results did not reflect the wants of residents and that “certain groups” garnered submissions from outside the country in order to give Nalayeh’s name a boost. Black community associations said at the time that his comments were racist and a move to unfairly dismiss the results.
Other trustees have said Sherman’s views do not reflect their own and they have no issues with the process.
Ahead of a town hall Wednesday night to discuss the name choice, students and members of the local Black and Jewish communities say they support Nalayeh’s name and question why trustees have the final say.
The consultation has even prompted the board to agree to reexamine its policy on how schools are renamed.
Baxter is part of a group called Black Youth-York Region that is using platforms like Instagram to encourage students to speak out. Her group, along with others, signed a letter that accuses trustees of not listening to the community and not valuing of student voices.
Changing one school to Nalayeh’s name would be a step toward improving a board that has been plagued with issues around racism, she said. The province ordered a review of the board in 2017 in part due to equity issues.
“It’s made me feel really bad. Not only does it affect Black youth, not seeing themselves in what they’re learning. It affects other students’ perceptions of Black people,” she said.
Kandeephan Ganeshalingam, principal of the secondary school, said after the renaming was announced in September, the school had students learn the history of who Vaughan was and, after surveying them, learned they wanted the school to acknowledge the harm of promoting the name of a man who enslaved Black people.
Since then, staff have been meeting with students, parents and community members to talk about renaming and have also undergone training about barriers in the system for Black students, Ganeshalingam said in a statement.
Palwashah Ali, 17, said initially she was thrilled students were asked to submit names in the consultation process, as students of colour specifically often do not feel they can be vocal on issues that pertain to them.
But now, “it’s really disheartening to see how things are unravelling at this point,” said Ali, a student liaison with York Communities for Public Education, a group of students, parents and teachers that was formed last year.
Earlier this month, they submitted a letter to the board noting that 42 per cent of 992 submissions in the consultation process were for Nalayeh’s name, urging trustees to uphold the results.
“Our opinions don’t seem as valuable anymore,” said Ali, adding that it “hurts” to see board members question the importance of naming a school after Nalayeh, who did groundbreaking work in the region as a Black, Muslim journalist.
In a statement to the Star, Sherman said he found submissions from people who were “just” friends or relatives of York Region residents, and outside Canada from those who did not indicate they were former students.
Sherman also previously alleged that organizations like the Vaughan African Canadian Association refused to consider the names of Holocaust survivors for the school. The association told the Star it would never object to a school being named after survivors, but it’s clear from the consultation that the community has picked Nalayeh’s name.
Prominent members of the Jewish community in the Vaughan and Thornhill regions have voiced their support for Nalayeh’s name in recent weeks. Sherman said there are “many who have different preferences, and I respect the diversity of their suggestions. It’s not about any one name.” However, he sad that parents, staff and community members have expressed to him that they feel “left behind” by the process.
Rabbi Micah Streiffer of the Kol Ami synagogue in Thornhill said “if we can make a statement with this naming that slavery, and bigotry, and racism are wrong that would be the best possible course of action.”
He also said he’s concerned that questioning of consultation process could create tensions between Black and Jewish communities that don’t need to be there.
In the last few weeks, members of the Jewish community in the region have reached out to the Vaughan African Canadian Association in support of the renaming efforts, said Shernett Martin, executive director of the organization.
“Trustees got elected for this role and did not realize they had to be equipped to deal with racialized communities,” she said. “Look at your unconscious bias ... and look at how you’re taking away the voice of a community that lives here.”