Imagine being a young indigenous child attending a school named after an Indian-hating racist.
For many years that was the case for First Nations students at Port Alberni’s A.W. Neill Elementary School.
Neill was a local politician, mayor of Port Alberni, then MP for the riding of Comox-Alberni from 1921 to 1945. He supported Indian residential schools, anti-Chinese laws, and the internment of Japanese people during the Second World War. Neill’s house even had a covenant stating that no Asians could live in it, except as servants.
Unbelievably, it wasn’t until 2019 that the covenant was removed, even though Neill passed away more than 50 years earlier.
Some people just aren’t worth honouring. Or even remembering.
Neill was one of them.
That’s why last Wednesday, children, staff and community members donning orange shirts gathered for the official renaming of the school to Tsuma-as Elementary School, the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the nearby Somas River.
School trustee Connie Watts, a member of Tseshaht First Nation, was on hand for the ceremony. She explained that the Somass River is her nation’s connection to the rest of the world.
“It’s about recognizing Tsuma-as as a real connecting force,” she told Black Press.
The idea for the renaming was first brought up in 2015 by another school trustee, Rosemarie Buchanan, after she received a Facebook message asking if she knew Neill’s history. She didn’t.
“So, I did a little research, and I can’t find any mention of good things that he’s done. He was a reprehensible racist,” Buchanan said.
Five years later, the school board voted to remove Neill’s name from the school. But it took another year or so of discussions with the Tseshaht First Nation and Hupacasath First Nation to land on a new name.
“For some people, it might just mean a name of a school,” Tseshaht Chief Councillor Wahmeesh Ken Watts said. “But for me and for many others, it’s a lot more than that. Today the school district has done more than just a simple territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of an event.”
It’s time for other schools and towns to put racist names on their buildings and streets where they belong, on the garbage heap of history.