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Bitter dispute over renaming a Vaughan school after Somali woman leads to accusations of anti-Semitism, racism
Jan. 22, 2021
Olivia Bowden

After a months-long consultation process with York Region community members to rename a Vaughan high school, a bitter dispute has led to accusations of anti-Semitism and resulting allegations of racism.

This week, the results of a community survey found a plurality of residents want the school to be named after a Somali-Canadian woman, the late journalist Hodan Nalayeh.

Now, David Sherman, a Board of Trustees member within the York Region District School Board, is alleging “certain groups” in the community have collected name submissions from outside the country to improperly bolster support for naming the school after Nalayeh.

Sherman claims that has led submissions to be overwhelmingly in favour of Nalayeh, contrary to what the “local community” wants.

Black community advocacy groups say Sherman’s comments are racist, and say Nalayeh’s name was legitimately the first choice of the highest number of those surveyed by the school board, in a fair process.

As well, two other trustees, including the board chair, said Sherman’s views do not reflect their views or those of the board and they see no issues with the survey.

Vaughan Secondary School is being renamed after groups including Parents of Black Children and the Vaughan African Canadian Association campaigned for months last year. Benjamin Vaughan was an 18th-century British slave owner.

Trustees unanimously agreed in mid-September to remove Vaughan’s name. A consultation process would seek a name more representative of the local community.

The push for the name change gained support during a summer of Black Lives Matter protests worldwide. Amid similar campaigns for streets and buildings, the City of Toronto is considering a petition to rename Dundas Street, named after Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who worked to delay the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, the city states on its website.

While Sherman told the Star he supports “the advocacy of grassroots groups to combat anti-Black racism,” he said the board needs to listen to “parents and current students” about name preferences. Further, he alleges the Vaughan African Canadian Association “objected to the inclusion of Holocaust survivors for mere consideration.”

Several members of community advocacy groups in York Region who are Black and picked Nalayeh’s name for the school said they never objected to Holocaust survivors being on the shortlist.

“I feel like he’s disenfranchising the Black community and Muslim community,” said Shernett Martin, the executive director of the Vaughan African Canadian Association, who led the campaign to change the school’s name. “It’s divisive, and it’s hurtful, that he’s trying to pit the Black community against perhaps another community.”

Nalayeh was killed in a July 2019 attack on a hotel in Somalia. She was known for writing about Canada’s Somali diaspora, focusing on youth and women. At the time of her death, members of the Somali-Canadian community in Vaughan called her an “icon” for sharing positive stories about the diaspora.

In November, the York Region District School Board sent a survey to students and families, alumni, staff, board advisory committee members, community groups and associations along with the “broader Vaughan community” to ask who they’d like the school to be named after.

Respondents could enter three choices. On the YRDSB website, the process is outlined: the survey was not a vote but would determine the most popular names to create a shortlist.

That shortlist will then be submitted for consideration, and community members will be invited back in February to discuss their views. The Board of Trustees will have the final vote.

On Tuesday, at a Property Management Committee virtual meeting, the survey results were presented. Out of 992 accepted submissions, about 42 per cent picked Nalayeh as first choice. Another 17 per cent picked Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, author and activist, and 2.5 per cent picked Andrew Wiggins, an NBA player from Vaughan, as their first choices.

The other submissions were split among about 40 others including Alex Trebek and Drake.

Martin said she’s confused as to why Sherman believes the consultation process has led to illegitimate results.

“It’s a gross display of anti-Black racism that Trustee Sherman is refusing to acknowledge the results,” she said, adding that Black communities’ efforts were behind the name change.

The survey results said 205 of those who submitted choices were students, 191 were parents, and 687 were either from Thornhill, Vaughan or residents elsewhere in York. Participants could choose more than one category to identify their affiliation with the school.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Sherman said he worried submissions were coming from outside the country.

Trustee Bob McRoberts said in response that he didn’t think it matters where a former student lives, and the current data doesn’t seem to show submissions from abroad. “What’s the point of community consultation if we’re going to ignore the results of that community consultation?”

The Star emailed all trustees on whether they shared Sherman’s views on the process. Chair Cynthia Cordova said in a statement she “deeply regrets the hurt that may have resulted from the perception of comments made at the committee meeting which has unfortunately distracted from this important community-based process.

“The comments of one Trustee at a committee meeting do not reflect the views of the Board.”

Trustee Juanita Nathan said in a statement she’s content that the survey results were “inclusive and community oriented” and doesn’t share Sherman’s concerns.

The YRDSB confirmed in an email that Nalayeh’s name was shortlisted on a list of nine names to be considered in Feburary.

Charline Grant, who founded Parents of Black Children, an advocacy group for Black students and parents facing systemic barriers in education, says Sherman’s actions -- including a tweet this week that “Jewish voices count” and that Thornhill “overwhelmingly supports” naming the high school after a Holocaust survivor -- undermine the Black community members who backed Nalayeh.

In a statement to the Star, Sherman alleged the Vaughan African Canadian Association objected to Holocaust survivors being on the shortlist.

“My issue is with the way the information is presented; one name is locally supported, the other not,” he said, adding that he had always advocated for ensuring all votes came from the community only.

“No single group has the right to determine a new school name independently.”

The Star asked Sherman on Thursday afternoon what he meant by “locally supported” and for any emails that showed the Vaughan African Canadian Association objected to Holocaust survivors being considered. As of Thursday evening, he did not respond.

Shernett Martin sent the Star emails to Sherman and other trustees, where she states “in any other circumstance naming the school after Elie Wiesel would not be an issue,” and asks why a February consultation is needed when the community clearly favoured Nalayeh.

Ahead of the February meeting, Martin says she and other community members are exhausted having to continually be vocal about racism within education systems.

“Once we fought one battle and felt that we did something good --then you get something like this that just slaps you in the face again,” she said. “How much more fighting do we have to do?”