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Allegations of anti-Black racism plague renaming process of Vaughan high school
Feb. 18, 2021
Eden Debebe and Valeria Lorenzetti

Many statues and monuments dedicated to racist historical figures have been renamed over the past year, a movement kick-started by Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

The renaming process at Vaughan Secondary School has grown into a bitter back and forth between a school board trustee and anti-Black racism activists in the community.

Local groups like Black Lives for Change and Italian-Canadians for Black Lives began shedding light on the dark legacy of Benjamin Vaughan, a notable slave owner who advocated in favour of continuing the slave trade in Canada. A major city in the Greater Toronto Area, a main road, and, until recently, a civic holiday, were named after Vaughan.

Advocacy work began in the summer of 2020 and paid off just a few months later when the York Region District School Board unanimously voted to remove Vaughan from the secondary school’s name. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, board members decided to use an online survey to have students and community members vote on their pick for a new name.  The woman who took the leading 42 per cent of votes was Hodan Nalayeh, a celebrated Black-Canadian journalist who died in 2019 during a terrorist attack in Somalia.

YRDSB Trustees member David Sherman doesn’t believe the poll yielded accurate results, alleging in a statement posted to Twitter that people living outside of the community also participated in the vote.

“I appreciate and support the advocacy of grassroot groups to combat anti-Black racism and recognize the important role they played in bringing this issue to light,” Sherman said.

“However, it is incumbent on the Board to listen to the school’s local community -- particularly parents and current students -- about the naming of a school in their own neighbourhood.”

Sherman told OMNI Television he personally looked through the survey results and saw many participants admitting they didn’t live in Vaughan and had never attended the high school.

“The survey had specifically noted it was for Vaughan community members, and in reviewing all submissions I found many who noted they were just friends or relatives of York Region residents,” Sherman said.

“I’ve seen submissions from teachers and students in other regions and residents across Ontario, Canada, and even other countries. Participants had an option to note if they were former students, even if they no longer live locally; I am referring to those who did not select this option. People with no connection to the school should not drown out the voices of those who live and go to school here.”

According to the YRDSB summary of the survey results, just over 12% of participants selected either ‘Other Role’ (e.g., friends or relatives living in York Region/Vaughan, Torontonian, Canadian) or chose not to answer. The remaining 88% are either students, alumni, parents, YRDSB staff, community group members or residents of York Region.

Sherman’s stance didn’t come as much of a surprise to Black Lives for Change Co-Founder and Executive Director Efia Tekyi--Annan. She tells OMNI Television his claims are just a cover for the school board’s anti-Black stance.

“York Region district schoolboard is racist,” Tekyi-Annan said.

“I grew up in the school board. I know firsthand what it feels like to not be heard or to be discriminated against for the colour of my skin.”

Sherman has shown support for others on the shortlist, including NBA player and graduate of Vaughan Secondary Andrew Wiggins and runner-up in the virtual poll Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, activist and author who took 17% of the vote.

“Thornhill is a diverse community, with a notably large Jewish population,” Sherman said.

“It should not have been surprising to see Holocaust survivors reflected in the neighborhood’s submissions and those from the former Vaughan Secondary itself.”

According to Tekyi-Annan, many community members of different backgrounds have vocalized their support for Nalayeh, including the Jewish population.

“This renaming process has ignited the Black community as well as other communities who are standing in solidarity with us like the Indigenous community and the Jewish community who are coming to let us know they support us and they’re not happy with what’s going on in York Region,” Tekyi-Annan said.

“We have received a lot of letters from the Jewish community stating that David Sherman does not speak for them, does not stand for them, that they too are in favour of the reparation that would be naming the school after a black woman -- a Black Muslim woman. This work takes allyship and we can’t do it alone.”

“I don’t believe that any one group’s recommendations are more important than others,” Sherman said.

“But it is not appropriate as part of an open consultation to discount one group in favour of another -- and this has happened repeatedly. One such example is a hostile letter that singled out the Jewish community’s participation in the survey. Were this any other ethnic group I would be equally concerned, and I believe others would be as well, yet they have been silent here.”

The ‘hostile’ letter was sent by the Vaughan African Canadian Association (now known as ANCHOR) on Twitter, a social justice group that led the original movement to rename the school.

“We are hearing that trustee David Sherman is rallying with his supporters to rename the school after holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. In any other circumstance naming the school after Elie Wiesel or anyone else deserving would not be an issue and would not warrant this email or the groundswell of concern and advocacy regarding the renaming but this isn’t any circumstance. The reason why Vaughan SS currently does not have a name on it is because the Black community in Vaughan worked tirelessly for months to bring it to the attention of the school board the fact that the school was named after enslaver Benjamin Vaughan.”

When Sherman shared the letter on Twitter, many critics were quick to point out that it did not come off as offensive or threatening at all.

YRDSB chair Cynthia Cordova​ put out a statement shortly afterwards, addressing the growing ‘harm’ around the renaming process.

“Our words and actions have not consistently aligned with the intentions with which we began the renaming process last fall,” Cordova wrote.

“We wanted and needed to address the anti-Black racism associated with Benjamin Vaughan’s history.  We have not done this well and hurt has resulted.  This is contrary to our commitment to inclusion and respecting community voices.  We are listening to feedback and will correct this and future processes as needed so that our goals, and our values are clear.”

The process of re-naming the school will continue on February 17th, during a virtual town hall meeting at 7 p.m.

“We would really like the community to come out and make sure that they deputize at the community meeting on February 17th,” Tekyi--Annan said.

“We would like everyone to know that there are people fighting and standing up, and it’s not just Black people. It’s the community. The community wants change.”