A Port Alberni elementary school named after a controversial public figure from the city’s past will be renamed.
The board of education for School District 70 voted unanimously on Tuesday, Feb. 11 to remove the name A.W. Neill from one of its elementary schools.
The name has been a point of contention in Port Alberni for years now. SD70 trustee Rosemarie Buchanan first brought her concerns to the board back in 2016, but the potential name change was met with backlash from the public. SD70 started work on a name changing policy, and the decision about A.W. Neill was made following this policy.
Alan Webster Neill was an MP for Comox-Alberni from 1925-1945 and an Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island, helping to establish the first residential school in the Alberni Valley. Neill was also vocally racist against those of Asian heritage, making multiple efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants and at one point stating that Japanese Canadians were “being spread all over Canada like the smallpox disease.” He also supported Japanese internment during the Second World War.
Neill’s own home in Port Alberni included a covenant stating that no Asians were allowed to live there, except as servants. The covenant was finally removed in 2019 with the help of some high school students.
Eiko Eby, a member of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, was at the school board meeting on Tuesday to offer her support for renaming the school.
“For us as a Japanese-Canadian community, there were racist actions that Mr. Neill was part of,” she said. “This is something that we’re really concerned about. It’s not too late to try to redress some of these things that happened.”
The school board invited feedback from members of the public during a consultation period starting in 2019 and received an “underwhelming” response, said superintendent Greg Smyth. Out of a total of 124 responses, only eight people voted to keep the name A.W. Neill.
According to Smyth, the feedback that the school district received said that “there is clear support for renaming A.W. Neill,” but no clear support for an alternative name.
Trustee Chris Washington offered her support for the name change. “It is not to erase history, because history cannot be erased,” she said. “We need to find a different name to celebrate something else.”
The board agreed on Tuesday to remove the name A.W. Neill from the elementary school, although a new name was not chosen. Trustee Connie Watts said that she would like to see the new school name chosen by the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations.
“We haven’t named any of them,” she said.
Haahuupayak School, which has a Nuu-chah-nulth name and operates on Tseshaht First Nation land, is not part of School District 70.
Buchanan added that she would also like to see the Japanese-Canadian community consulted.
The board agreed to develop a committee to decide on a new name. The committee will consult with the National Association of Japanese Canadians and the Tseshaht and Hupacasath First Nations, as well as school students, parents and staff. The new board policy states that schools cannot be named after people.
Smyth addressed some of the community’s comments about the waste of time, energy and money for a name change, stating that the “costs are neither substantial, nor insignificant.” The cost, he added, has to be weighed against the moral and ethical decision.
Community members have also expressed concern about Maquinna Elementary, named after the Nuu-chah-nulth chief of the late 1700s. Written accounts from the time period state that Maquinna kept several European slaves.
Smyth said that the board had discussed Maquinna, but agreed that the name wasn’t a concern, given the context of re-examining history. “The feeling at the time was [that these were] very different actions from a colonial, racist mindset, versus an individual who was acting to protect territory in the face of a colonial mindset,” said Smyth.
The board also decided on Tuesday to keep the name Ucluelet Secondary School (USS). The board was concerned that USS failed to capture the diversity of the region it served on the west coast, which also includes students from Tofino and surrounding First Nations communities. However, west coast residents voted 104-41 to keep the name.
“There is a very, very strong west coast voice for retaining the current name of Ucluelet Secondary,” said Smyth on Tuesday.
A proposal to change the name of the school district from “Alberni” to “Alberni-Pacific Rim” was tabled for discussion at another time.