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Colonial history, First Nation concerns lead to Vancouver Island school name change

Nanaimo’s Coal Tyee school, named after First Nations ‘tragic figure,’ has been renamed Syuẁén’ct
Coal Tyee Elementary School will be now known as Syuẁén’ct and the field at Nanaimo District Secondary School will be known as Q’unq’inuqwstuxw, after school trustees voted in favour of the name changes at a meeting July 6. (News Bulletin file photo)

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ trustees have given final approval to name changes for Coal Tyee Elementary School and the sports field at Nanaimo District Secondary School.

As per board direction at a special meeting Wednesday, July 6, Coal Tyee will now be known as Syuẁén’ct (soo-wintst), translating to “our traditions” in Hul’qumi’num, while NDSS Community Field will be known as Q’unq’inuqwstuxw (ki-kin-ish-took), translating to “pass it back.”

Public feedback was accepted the duration of June, and more than 700 responses were received. According to a staff report, 52 per cent were in favour of Syuẁén’ct and a 46 per cent minority approved of Q’unq’inuqwstuxw. A report on public engagement noted that there were comments regarding the language and pronunciation and some desire to name the school after a community contributor. Some members of the public felt the chosen names were positive changes in an era of truth and reconciliation.

Staff recommended both name changes, citing support from Snuneymuxw First Nation and alignment with the Syeyutsus reconciliation learning framework. While less than 50 per cent of respondents were in favour of Q’unq’inuqwstuxw, staff said it appeared some were under the assumption that the high school itself was being renamed.

Charlene McKay, school board chairperson, said how signage will look has not been determined yet and work for Q’unq’inuqwstuxw will involve Snuneymuxw and the City of Nanaimo. The district will address concerns about pronunciation.

“It’ll be available phonetically, it will be available with audio files, so people can hear it and practise it, but we’re planning to do an educative campaign around the importance of the name changes, why we’re doing it, and help people understand the pronunciations,” McKay said.

When asked about the number of respondents favouring the name changes hovering around 50 per cent, McKay said many people have not had access to information related to the effects of residential schools. It’s understandable why half of respondents are hesitant to the change, she said.

“We took that into consideration and recognized the need for us to focus on the education piece of it,” said McKay. “Murray Sinclair (Truth and Reconciliation Commission chairperson) has said before, ‘Education got us into this and education will get us out,’ so that’s going to be a big part of our focus for the next little while. We understand why there’s some hesitation out there, but we feel it’s really important as a component of reconciliation to take this small step forward.”

At the meeting, trustee Naomi Bailey, who is Indigenous, said the district needs to be a leader.

“I think back – I’m a history teacher – to the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Bailey. “If Lyndon B. Johnson had waited for the southern states to catch up, we would still be seeing situations of segregated schooling … sometimes we have to be the change that needs to happen.”

Bailey also said Hul’qumi’num names recount stories of connection to place, scientific knowledge, ancestral and historical information and insight into Indigenous world view.

“I believe it’s affirming to [First Peoples],” said Bailey. “By doing this, it’s an act of anti-racism that recognizes the impact of colonization and it offers the opportunity for a sense of inclusivity for all people in this community. Our community needs to find ways of embracing its non-colonial history and I really believe that this is a step in that process.“

Expenses related to the recommendations would be “relatively minor with minor signage changes required,” noted staff, and estimated to be under $10,000 each.

While McKay did not want to venture a guess on when signage for the field would be ready, she anticipated a sign for the school would be ready for September.

The board voted unanimously in favour of both motions.

The name Coal Tyee (great coal chief) was originally thought to represent collaboration between colonial and Indigenous peoples and Nanaimo’s history of coal mining, a previous staff report noted. However, the person the school was named after is seen by Snuneymuxw peoples as a tragic figure, as his interactions led to colonization of the area, and as such it did not align with district policy, the report said.

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Karl Yu

About the Author: Karl Yu

I joined Black Press in 2010 and cover education, court and RDN. I am a Ma Murray and CCNA award winner.
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