An online petition is calling for Sir John A. Macdonald High School to keep its name, but a Mi’kmaw historian said they’re missing the point.
There were more than 600 names on the online petition just days after the principal announced the name of the school in Upper Tantallon should change to something more inclusive.
Tanis Leach, a Tantallon resident, organized the petition. She said the community should have been consulted before any decisions were made about dropping the name. Leach is not an alumnus of the high school, nor does she have a child enrolled there.
“If a student is not feeling included or safe in their school, it’s not because of the name of the school,” Leach said in an interview.
She’s concerned that “we’re villainizing a man who was our first national democratic leader.”
Many critics who signed the petition argued that by changing the name, people would forget about Macdonald’s legacy – the good and the bad. One person who signed the petition under the name Faith Parker, commented, “Changing the name won’t undo what has been done, but changing the name erases part of my history.”
Daniel Paul, a Mi’kmaq elder, author and activist, said the idea that removing Macdonald’s name from the high school erases history is “bullshit.”
“I never advocated that you erase these people from history,” he said. “In fact, if the real history of them were taught, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation today.”
During his time as prime minister, Macdonald created the residential school system. Under this system, over 150,000 Indigenous children were put in church-run residential schools. They were isolated from their culture, forbidden from speaking their Indigenous languages and suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Omeasoo Wāhpāsiw, an assistant professor at the University of Prince Edward Island’s faculty of education, said by allowing Macdonald’s name to remain on the school, history is already being erased because it emphasizes only his positive legacy while ignoring the harm his policies have caused.
Wāhpāsiw is Nehiyaw, meaning Cree. She applauded Sir John A. Macdonald’s principal, Darlene Fitzgerald, for her “great leadership” and willingness to make a change to help students and the community.
It’s up to the principal of a school to lead the process of renaming, according to Halifax Regional Centre for Education guidelines. Fitzgerald sent out a letter on Nov. 12 asking students, parents and the community for their input on a new name. Anyone with a name in mind is asked to submit their suggestion to a Google form, along with the reasoning behind their suggestion.
Paul said he wasn’t surprised to hear how many signatures the petition got. “Nova Scotia has a long history of intolerance. So, it’s really not surprising that some of that still remains.”