If you’ve been paying attention, (and I hope you have), systemic racism and its agents are being upended across North America. One space where the fight for anti-racist Black futures has long been waging is in our nation’s schools.
Black students and their families, throughout this country’s history have highlighted, challenged and battled the systemic oppression of our racist education system. Whether it be through the curriculum, the presence of police in schools or simply the names of the schools, it’s not easy being Black and Indigenous in Canada’s education system.
In 2003, when the John A. MacDonald High School in Waterloo was being constructed, the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) issued a call to the residents of the community for suggested names of the school. The call for suggestions yielded few responses; however, the responses were considerably in favour of naming the school in honour of Oscar Peterson. Peterson is the iconic Black Canadian jazz pianist. He’s the winner of eight Grammys and the composer of the civil rights anthem “Hymn to Freedom”.
Rather than consider the voice of the community, the WRDSB school trustees voted unanimously to name the school in honour of the father of Indigenous genocide in Canada, our nation’s first Prime Minister John A. MacDonald. The school board stated that Peterson still being alive at the time made him ineligible for name consideration. This insidious excuse was not only based on falsehood but it also speaks to the bold, and unapologetic nature of systemic racism.
Vanessa Hayford, a past student of SJAM shared her perspective. “Naming the school after Sir John A. Macdonald means that the school board chose to celebrate all parts of this man’s legacy. It is not possible to give credit to this man without acknowledging his role in the oppression and murder of Indigenous peoples. Knowing that the school could have been named after Oscar Peterson, it is clear that the life of an accomplished and respected Black Canadian icon was not worthy of celebration. It makes me sad and makes me feel like the school board wasted an opportunity to embrace diversity and make racialized members of the community feel seen.”
There are schools across Canada named in honour of white Canadian figures who were alive at the time of their name, and some are still alive today. Our current Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau has two schools named after him: Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario and the E.S.P Marc Garneau in Trenton, Ontario. Astronaut Chris Hadfield has four different public schools in Ontario named in his honour. So, it begs the question why not Oscar Peterson? Black people know the answer to that.
This discussion is coming up again because last month, the John A. MacDonald statue in Baden was vandalized twice in one week. The call to rename the school is now being reignited.
MacDonald’s defenders assert that his legacy is the Dominion of Canada; he laid the foundation for the country as it exists today. But how do they separate this legacy from his Indigenous genocide? The nation of Canada would not come to exist as it does today without the mass murder of the Indigenous, First Nations, Metis and Inuit People of this land.
“Indian matters … form so great a portion of the general policy of the Government that I think it necessary for the Prime Minister, whoever he may be, to have that in his own hands.” Macdonald wrote in 1881.
MacDonald held dominion over Canada’s mission to eradicate the First Nations of this land, and he was responsible for overseeing the establishment of residential schooling. “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with its parents, who are savages, and though he may learn to read and write, his habits and training mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly impressed upon myself, as head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men." (Macdonald, 1879).
In 2020, the calls to remove statues, rename buildings, streets and cities that honour historical figures with genocidal pasts have been hotly debated. No name has come up for renaming quite as much as Sir John A. MacDonald’s has. In 2017, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, adopted a resolution to remove Sir John A. MacDonald’s name from public schools across the province. This proposal was flatly rejected by school board trustees across the province including the WRDSB. `It is a telling testament to white supremacy and its commitment to upholding the structures on which it has been founded. We cannot continue to laud historical figures who are responsible for genocide as founding fathers and pioneers.
There are those in our own community who will argue, “What’s in a name?” This question in itself speaks to the vestiges of colonialism and the erasure of Indigenous and West African culture through genocide and the forced enslavement of these people. In both Indigenous and West African culture, the naming ceremony is an important right of passage. It is a part of our identity. Our names can travel across the world without us ever knowing it. They are inextricably a part of us. Western culture understands this. We have read stories of names being a part of discriminatory hiring practices, of Black, Indigenous and other racialized students adopting white nicknames to navigate society.
In the film Roots, it’s most powerful and memorable scene centres the spiritual and cultural significance of the name. Kunta Kinte is whipped while being asked, “what’s your name?” Kunta was forced to choose between his life and his name. There are historical records of enslaved peoples being renamed as a part of their submission into slavery. As Black people, we should never ask what’s in a name or question the call for these institutions to be renamed. When white supremacy fights to name places that honour John A. MacDonald, Henry Dundas or Robert E. Lee just to name a few, it is a continuation of colonisation. It is a covert act of racism, a microaggression that is inflicted daily upon BIPOC communities; it sends the message that the mass murder, kidnapping and enslavement of our ancestors was and still is inconsequential.
We can’t do both. We can’t laud the perpetrators of genocide while claiming that Black and Indigenous lives matter. The time to choose has arrived.
Teneile Warren is a proud queer mom, writer, chef and equity educator. Her writing has appeared in ByBlacks, Huffington Post and Barren Magazine. She is an editorial advisor and mentor for Textile Magazine. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario with her wife, son and three furbabies. She explores identity, social issues and community through words and food. Find her on Twitter @iamquagmire