The TDSB is re-examining the names of its 583 schools. Can it find the right way to reflect the city’s diversity?
June 14, 2021
Ryerson Community School proudly states the origins of its name on its website.
It explains that Egerton Ryerson, who founded the Toronto school in 1877, studied “various education systems” across the U.S. and Europe, and “combined the best of these” to create his own school system.
Today, the school near Dundas and Bathurst streets is a “vibrant and diverse K to 8 school both culturally and linguistically.”
What the website doesn’t note: Ryerson was the architect of Canada’s residential school system, which led to Indigenous children being forcibly removed from their homes, assimilated and abused. It’s estimated thousands died.
It’s a legacy that is fomenting demands that his name be stripped from at least Ryerson University, where protesters toppled and decapitated a statue in his likeness a week ago. And it is a legacy that will likely inform discussion about the community school’s future when the Toronto District School Board starts a massive review of its 583 school names.
In a motion passed in April, Canada’s largest school board approved the creation of a panel of students, parents, educators and community members who will conduct a citywide evaluation of its elementary and high schools in an effort to “better reflect the diversity of the city.”
This comes as an ongoing reckoning of Canada’s racist past raises questions around who we honour and how. At Queen’s Park, a statue of John A. Macdonald, the country’s first prime minister and founder of residential schools, sits behind scaffolding after being frequently defaced. The City of Toronto is reviewing its commemoration policy after a petition demanded Dundas Street be renamed.
The TDSB was unable to provide any board members to be interviewed about the renaming as the committee “hasn’t been fully formed” and they aren’t yet in a position to speak, it said in a statement.
It’s time to ask who should be celebrated in the society Canadians want to build, says York University education professor Carl James, adding that schools are central to that vision.
“Schools are monuments to people, to ideas, to history. (They) also house young people who are there to learn … In a building with someone’s name, (students) are going to be alerted to what that person represents.”
Allowing schools to be named after people who have done harm contradicts the diversity of Toronto and the student body, says trustee David Smith, who brought forth the original motion.
“We are praising (people) by giving them a (school) name. If the name is no good then I don’t want it on anything. I want schools to reflect some interest to the students who are in that school.”
While the board is diverse -- 71 per cent of students are racialized -- many schools are named after white men, mostly dead and mostly from England or Scotland. A handful are named after women and racialized or Indigenous people. And there are schools named after neighbourhoods or streets -- but even many such names have colonial roots.
Earlier this month, students launched a petition to change the name of Dundas Junior Public School after learning in class that Henry Dundas was a late 18th-century Scottish politician who delayed the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade by 15 years, keeping hundreds of thousands of African people enslaved.
“It’s really important to rename the schools because times are changing, people are waking up to see the horrible history that has happened to several different groups,” says Eponine Lee, a Grade 8 student at Queen Alexandra Middle School, next door to the Dundas school.
Lee said creating the petition with her peers gave her hope that her voice can be used for change in the future. She hopes students are consulted for official renamings.
Her teacher Michelle Munk agrees. “Students are equal stakeholders in this process. It would be an amazing opportunity for kids to consider the new names.
“Any kind of significant social changes starts with kids.”
The renaming panel the TDSB has put together includes students and student trustees.
Firdaus Shallo is student trustee for the board and part of the panel. The Grade 12 student from C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute said the community must also be part of deciding on names.
“It’s really big for the community and representation of diversity, and for decades to come students will be able to hear empowering students that come from their community,” she said.
But identifying problematic names is just the first step.
The actual renaming process poses potential challenges, including finding consensus in a community or dealing with pushback from alumni with nostalgic attachment to a name or possibly disagreement on what constitutes a person being “racist.” San Francisco’s school board recently abandoned a much-criticized plan to rename 44 schools named after people linked to racism, sexism or injustice.
School boards across the country, faced with demands to drop their Macdonald collegiates, are having to reconsider policies. Durham District Public School Board recently approved a new policy as concerns were raised over Julie Payette Public School in the wake of a damning report on workplace harassment by the former governor general. And in York Region, this spring the process to rename Vaughan Secondary School to Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School became fraught as Black and Jewish communities said a flawed process was pitting the groups against each other.
The TDSB’s current policy to rename schools contains “impediments” to the renaming process itself, says trustee Smith, explaining not enough groups from multiple communities have been involved in the renaming. Smith’s motion on renaming included a clause that the current policy should be amended to allow improved consultation.
And the renaming itself is proving a huge task, Smith said. Last weekthe group asked for an extension of its June 30 deadline, and it hopes to submit its review in October.
There is also the financial challenge of changing the name on the building, records and letterhead, but Smith said this process will be worth the money. “It’s minuscule compared to the harm that continues,” he said.
Still, parent Ayan Kailie is skeptical the TDSB has the tools to ensure communities that have been traditionally harmed by the education system, including Indigenous and Black communities, will be heard in the process.
“I have no confidence,” said Kailie, the founder of the Black Student Success Committee at Swansea Junior and Senior Public School and co-chair of the parent council there. Kailie said she created the committee because those voices are often dismissed and she has felt targeted for advocating for her children.
“TDSB has to take steps to ensure equity is there at all times. They need to be proactive in their equity work, not reactive. And that’s what’s happening with them now, they are constantly playing catch-up after people have been harmed.”
She points to school names like Ryerson and John A. Macdonald that need to be the first to go. Ahead of the proposed renamings, the description of Ryerson Community School still sits on the TDSB’s website, days after the statue of Egerton Ryerson was torn down from outside the university.
The Star contacted faculty at Ryerson Community School and Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute, who directed all communication to the TDSB.
In response to a request to speak to faculty at the two schools about names, the TDSB provided a statement explaining the name review process is underway and the goal is to “improve the naming and renaming process for schools” and ensure new names better represent “diverse people.”
The Black Student Success Committee at Queen Victoria Public School shares Kailie’s skepticism about the review. They said the board has a culture of making racialized parents and students feel out of place, ignored and vilified. Those issues have emerged as the school undergoes a renaming process after a petition was launched, they said.
The concerns were amplified last summer following Black Lives Matter protests, as teachers, students and parents pointed to various boards, including the TDSB, failing to incorporate anti-racism into classrooms. Petitions circulated to rename several schools, including Queen Victoria, after a racist letter targeting Black faculty and parents was sent to the school.
The board has made some recent changes, as it launched a centre to improve the outcomes for Black students, called the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement. Last week, the board also named Colleen Russell-Rawlins, known for her anti-racism work, as its new director.
But the TDSB does not have a proven practice of “actually putting the policies to action,” said the committee.
Vidya Shah, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at York, said the process and policies can be as important as the renaming itself.
Shah, who has been asked to be a part of the renaming group, said the groups most harmed by the original names should pick the new ones. That history cannot be ignored during the process.
“An ahistorical and apolitical processes is what causes harm.”
To clear a path to these changes, institutions need be responsive to calls to action, and willing to have difficult conversations, said Hayden King, an instructor at Ryerson University and the director of the Yellowhead Institute.
“Renaming is the minimum standard of reconciliation,” he said. “It’s the easy thing to do, it’s something tangible. The fact there’s so much resistance to changing the name speaks to the place Canadians are at with historical figures.”
King was a part of the calls from Indigenous faculty to change the university’s name and refers to it as X University. Those calls, while certainly not new, grew in recent weeks after an unmarked burial site was discovered May 28 containing the remains of 215 Indigenous children who attended a B.C. residential school.
“The challenge that we see in places like Ryerson (University) and elsewhere is there’s a hesitation,” he said. “The institution itself, its role is to make space for that dialogue and that discussion. And that’s a big first step.”
The next steps involve improving the curriculum, hiring more Indigenous teachers, and welcoming Indigenous cultural celebrations and elements into everyday life, he said.
To Ayan Kailie, whose children attend Swansea, named after a neighbourhood that is named after a city in Wales, schools don’t necessarily need to have the name of someone who was overtly oppressive to be changed.
“I really think it needs to be changed to honour Indigenous people,” she said. “We’re all settlers. Just because the name isn’t outright racist doesn’t mean it’s OK.”
TDSB NAMES AT A GLANCE
School names that have been contentious: Ryerson Community School, Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate Institute, Sir William Osler High School, Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute, Dundas Junior Public School, Jarvis Collegiate Institute.
There are 11 schools named after a John.
There are 10 schools named after a George.
There are 12 schools named after members of the monarchy or a lord or earl.
In the TDSB’s history, 98 schools have had a major or minor part of their name changed. Of those changes, 78 were minor changes. (For example, St. Andrew’s Junior High School was changed to St. Andrew’s Middle School.)
Fourteen schools in the TDSB have had a major name change. (For example, Park Public School was changed to Nelson Mandela Park Public School.)