WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi has joined the call to Calgary school districts, demanding they immediately change the names of schools named for architects and key leaders of residential schools.
After the remains of 215 children were found buried at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Nenshi said it’s important to take action in Calgary, too.
He officially called upon the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District to change the name of Langevin School and Bishop Grandin School.
“I had the chance to spend some time this weekend with some colleagues who were graduates of Bishop Grandin School — who did not know who Bishop Grandin was and who did not know about the residential schools he controlled in this area,” he said.
“The time for dithering is long past, the time for process is long past. Both of those boards should change the name of those schools at their next meetings.”
Nenshi said meaningful action is long overdue.
“It was in 1907 that Dr. [Peter] Bryce wrote the first report talking about the deplorable health conditions at these schools, talking about tuberculosis rates of 25 to 50 per cent at these schools. His findings were ignored. Residential schools stayed in place for another 90 years,” he said.
“For those of you who watched the Friends reunion this week, think that the last residential school closed in Canada after that television show was already on the air. This is not ancient history. We knew. We’ve always known it happened here.”
In 2017, the City of Calgary moved to change the name of Langevin Bridge, linking Bridgeland and the downtown, to the Reconciliation Bridge.
Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a celebrated Roman Catholic priest and bishop who advocated on behalf of Métis rights, but he also believed First Nations people needed to be “civilized” and viewed residential schools as the way to accomplish this.
WATCH | Find out why these Langevin students have been advocating to see a school name change for years.
Grandin lobbied the federal government to fund the construction of these schools, now likened to cultural genocide for the way children were stripped from their families and of their identities.
His involvement was cited in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which concluded Grandin “led the campaign for residential schooling.”
Hector-Louis Langevin was one of the Fathers of Confederation and a Conservative cabinet minister, serving as secretary of state for the provinces when the country’s residential schools were introduced. He is considered an architect of the residential school system.
On Monday, students from Langevin School continued their long advocacy to have the Bridgeland facility renamed.
Along with fellow members of the Change Langevin School Committee, the students set up an art installation outside of the school.
Using the stencil art of Siksika Nation artist Adrian Stimson, the committee used sidewalk chalk to imprint little footprints and the words “Change Your Name, Name Your Change” outside the school. They also teamed up with community knitters to put up knitted number sevens on a fence across the street to honour Treaty 7.
“School is supposed to be safe and welcoming and inclusive. If it’s honouring a man who did such things, I wouldn’t consider it safe and inclusive,” said Grade 8 student Joy McCullagh, adding she hopes the installation attracts trustees’ attention.
“We have sent letters and we did go to one of the [trustee] meetings and we presented. We didn’t get the best response,” she said. “I do believe they are trying to put it off till the election this fall, and I also do believe that this is a simple thing to do. Just changed the name. Like, it’s pretty simple.”
McCullagh and two schoolmates, Zach and Seth Helfenbaum, made a presentation to the CBE board of trustees in January.
Since then, the CBE has said it is finalizing the process to rename schools. But when CBC News asked for an update last week, it did not provide one.
“A lot of children, young children, were taken away and abused or even killed [at residential schools] like the one in Kamloops, [where] they found 215 bodies of children,” said Grade 8 student Zach Helfenbaum.
“And since that big discovery, still nothing has happened. Those children don’t matter to the trustees, to everybody. And so I guess we’re just trying to change that fact, change the awareness about it and try and make it right.”
At an earlier board meeting, the CBE trustee for Wards 8 and 9, Richard Hehr, attempted to move the renaming process forward, but was ultimately called out of order and was unable to proceed with the motion.
“The revelations about the Kamloops Indigenous residential school put in sharp focus the need for all Canadians to insists that every effort be made to right the wrongs of the past,” he told CBC News on Monday, adding he was unable to comment further at this time.
In an emailed statement, the Calgary Catholic School District said it takes all Indigenous matters seriously and is deeply saddened by the discovery in Kamloops.
“As Catholics, we are deeply sorry for the residential school movement of the past. We are committed to the education recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action report,” it said.
“When it comes to the possible renaming of a CCSD school(s), the board of trustees will be considering feedback from stakeholders such as parents, staff, students, Catholic Bishops and elders in our Indigenous community.”
The Calgary Board of Education has not yet returned requests for comment.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.