Whats In a Name-Change?

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What’s In a Name-Change?

William Paul

Shernett Martin says her latest impetus for activism came with the murder of George Floyd, who died last May with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on his neck. Her group, now called African-Canadian National Coalition Against Hate, Oppression and Racism (ANCHOR), joined in support of Black Lives Matter, participating in six marches in as many months.

One march, at the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), was held to push that Board for more support in de-streaming Black students and others from different backgrounds, kids who all too often wind up in lower-level high school programmes. The march was also to highlight... the need for curriculum change to reflect the history and experiences of those students and their families. But, mainly, it was about changing the name of Vaughan Secondary School.

Why do we go along with assumptions about names of streets and buildings and towns until someone stops to ask why? Dundas is a town just outside of Hamilton and also a long street running through Toronto, until someone points out that it’s the namesake of Henry Dundas who fought to expand the British slave trade in the Caribbean during the late 1700s. Similarly, the name of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, graces the fronts of many schools and institutions, even though Macdonald was the architect of the Residential School System, at the centre of Indigenous genocide in Canada.

And then there’s Vaughan – one of the many towns north of Highway 401, once thriving farming communities on their own, now mixed together in an agglomeration called York Region. There’s so much more to a name, as Shernett Martin and Charline Grant from the group Parents of Black Children argued last June.

Benjamin Vaughan (1751- 1835), for whom the town and school was named, was born into a family of slaveowners. According to his family papers, about 300 enslaved people were forced to labour on the Vaughan family’s plantations in Jamaica. Benjamin Vaughan,1 elected to the British Parliament in 1792, was adamantly opposed to the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves, something that he pronounced would bring an end to civilization in Jamaica. He thought that Black slaves weren’t ready to be freed. How could his name be less suited to appear on the sign of any secondary school in a diverse community like York Region?

It looks like the York Region District School Board took community demands for a name change seriously. By September 15, a report from Director of Education Louise Sirisko recommended the move, and the Board voted to change the name of Vaughan Secondary School. It’s worth noting that YRDSB chair at the time, Juanita Nathan, said, “It is important that our education system is responsive to the lived experiences of all of our community members, including students and families of our Black community.”

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