Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It’s one thing to recognize that over the decades and the centuries, we’ve named a lot of things after some people who weren’t very good in retrospect. It’s another thing to do something about that, but it is starting to happen.
News Clip: Toronto’s executive committee has voted unanimously to move forward with the renaming of Dundas Street due to Henry Dundas Association with the transatlantic slave trade.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: My question, though, is, how do we go about it? And especially how far do we go with this? These are honest questions. I’m not interested in the philosophy behind the renaming. We shouldn’t have named things after racists or people who argued for slavery and residential schools. I don’t think that’s up for debate. But I’m interested in the practical questions. Who makes the decision to rename what and who is consulted when you rename a school? Who gets to say in the new name? Who makes sure that the new name won’t be as bad as the old name a century from now? Where should renaming start and where should it end? Recent months have shown us some pretty obvious lowhanging fruit. But if the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that there’s clearly a lot more for us to learn about historical figures, than we’ve been taught.
News Clip 2: Late last month, the TDSB approved a motion to review school names. In a news release, they said in part, this plan aims to improve the naming and renaming process for schools to ensure they better represent the diverse people, cultures, and history of Toronto.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So what standards should be applied to renaming a school or a hospital of which there are relatively few as compared, say, two streets or parks, of which there are often many with the same bad name, often at least one in every city. What has to happen once the decision is made in the governments, on maps, in schools and textbooks? And how do you go about all of that intentionally and thoughtfully and practically because admitting that a name is bad is one thing. What comes after that is the actual work.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Dr. Vidya Shah is an educator committed to issues of equity and justice. She’s an assistant Professor in the faculty of education at York University, and she is one of the educators on a panel the Toronto District School Board has put together to examine renaming schools. Hi, Dr. Shah.
Dr. Vidya Shah: Hi, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Maybe we can start with a bit of an explanation. Why are we renaming things right now? And if you remember, where did we start with this? Like, when did this first become an issue?
Dr. Vidya Shah: You know, that’s such a great question, Jordan. One of the things I think we’re seeing with the rise in racial consciousness and other movements around the world is that we are changing in our level of social consciousness, and part of that change is an acknowledgement of historical harm that has been done to many communities, especially Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities. And with that change in consciousness, we become more aware of how systems of oppression, like white supremacy and settler colonialism, are built into the very structures of our society, including who we choose to commemorate and celebrate. And so the naming of a school represents what we, as a society, choose to memorialize, what we choose to put on a pedestal. And it’s also a direct reflection of the priorities and interests of those in power. And one of the things that commemorating or memorializing does is that it allows many of us to protect an image of ourselves, of our community, of the nation of Canada as pure and good and innocent by literally erasing and making invisible histories and presentday conditions of harm.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What do you think about the claim, and I’m not making this claim in any way, but I have heard it that focusing on renaming things takes our attention away from attacking the actual structural problems of racism that we’re discussing.
Dr. Vidya Shah: So I think that’s a really important tension that we need to hold. And I’ll name why. While there are some folks that are intent on being ignorant and harmful and violent in their denial of harm, we can generally agree that slavery is a bad thing, that colonialism and the particular way that it’s played out in Canada’s history is a bad thing, and that if we’re commemorating folks who are or who were actively and intentionally against the abolition of slavery, or who were actively promoting residential schooling and the cultural genocide that occurred through and within residential schooling, then we need to be making very different choices. So it’s a recognition that these are people who stood for harm, intentional harm of entire populations of people, and in doing so, are naming these entire groups of people as disposable, as uncivilized, as dangerous, as less than, and we’ve chosen to celebrate and commemorate them.
But this question you raise about are we taking attention away from what really matters by renaming institutions is an important question. And in my opinion, is true if we are engaging in one of 2 things. First, if we are not also engaging in larger systemic change in policies and structures that need to happen alongside the sort of change in consciousness that happens as we rename schools and institutions, then the Act of renaming schools or the Act of renaming institutions becomes a distraction to prevent us from doing the present day work of continuing to dismantle anti-Black racism, anti-Indigenous racism, and other forms of racism that are built into our structures.
And, you know, the second way that I think that it could detract from important things that are happening is that oftentimes people will say this is detracting from what really matters, because what they’re not saying is that there’s a tremendous amount of shame and embarrassment and guilt that exists when we think about Canada’s history. And when we think about that, if we want to hide from that, if we want to make sure that we erase that from our collective memory so that Canada can be considered Canada the great or the benevolent or the multicultural, all accepting country, then those people are definitely going to want to use that argument to not have the important conversation of the truth of this nation.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s a great answer. And I actually don’t want to talk too much about why we should rename things and that whole argument, because what I’m really interested in and why I’m glad that you’re on this panel is once we’ve made the decision that we’re open to this, how we go about it. So maybe to start, how do we grapple with the criteria for when something needs to be renamed? Egerton Ryerson, obviously the architect of residential schools. I think there’s a huge acknowledgment that it’s incredibly problematic that one of our universities is named after him and another school’s named after him. And we need to change that. But where does that line go to? You know, there’s a lot of schools named after Prime Ministers who might not have created residential schools but certainly didn’t stand in the way of them.
Dr. Vidya Shah: Yup. And, you know, this is where I see the renaming of schools as a practice that is more than simply about doing the politically correct thing. It is actually about raising our collective and critical consciousness. And so when we think of it from that perspective, it means that we need to be in conversation, that we need to be in dialogue as peoples in terms of who and what we prioritize. And so I agree with you that there are certain things that, you know, absolutely need to be renamed. I know that there’s the renaming of Dundas happening, Egerton Ryerson. And one of the things that is often a barrier in this kind of work is the number of people that, again, want to maintain this notion of Canada the great, and they will try to uphold that particular version of Canada, a particular version of a city or a place or an institution that erases the tremendous harm done because it is of some value to them and their identity. And I say all this recognizing that there’s also often not a clear line, I don’t know of any figure in history, even the ones that are upheld internationally, that haven’t engaged in some form of harm to a particular group of people. And so part of this is a recognition that we are human, that we are flawed, and that inevitably we all make mistakes. But it’s how we acknowledge those mistakes. It’s how we come back from those mistakes. It’s whether we acknowledge those mistakes and whether somebody is intentionally engaging in active harm.
You know, the example that you shared of Egerton Ryerson, there was intentional harm there through the Common Schools Act to build the model that resulted in residential schooling. There was intentional streaming of deaf and blind children. There was, in many ways, the basis of the school to prison pipeline built right in. He supported segregated Black schools. When you have all of these types of things happening intentionally based on logics of white supremacy and settler colonialism and capitalism and ableism that are intentionally built into the system, then we have to ask ourselves this question of are these people worthy of commemoration? And frankly, no, they’re not. Why are we, as a society upholding such blatantly violent people? This becomes the conversation that we need to engage in about our ethics and our values. And I would say, for leaders that are leading this charge, it requires bold and courageous leadership, and there will be resistance. And what needs to happen is that those who have been most harmed by the commemorating or the memorializing of particular people, those voices need to be heard the most, and we need to recognize that those voices aren’t going to all say the same thing. People from any given community will have different opinions and perspectives. And dialogues within communities are also really important. So no community is a monolith, but those are the voices that need to be centered in the conversation.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Once something has been designated for renaming, what happens next, and how do we go about finding it a new name?
Dr. Vidya Shah: So when I think about the process of renaming schools, you know, I think about the institutional responsibility that schools and school districts have to really ask themselves, who are our schools named after? And so what I appreciate about the Toronto District School Board and other school boards that are sort of moving in this direction is that the institution is taking the responsibility to think about how have we been complicit in harm, unintentionally, or intentionally in the names that we have chosen and allowed our schools to be named after? So there is first the sense of institutional responsibility. Once that happens, and I should say this, that oftentimes when institutions don’t take that responsibility, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of community members. And that responsibility is hard and tiring work because you’re going up against an entire system. And it is often unacknowledged and unpaid labour that has huge effects on communities in terms of social wellbeing, mental health, physical health. And so the importance of institutions taking on that responsibility is so key. When that happens, it’s then important to really open up the dialogue and to have many people in conversation. And again, in my opinion, the purpose of this is much more about the renaming of the school, than the social, the raising of social consciousness that occurs as a result of having the conversation.
And so if that is to happen, we want to make lots of space for dialogue, and we want to make lots of space for descent. And there’s going to be different opinions. And there’s going to be different groups that are going to try to put forth a name of a member of a community that they want honoured, even if the name of the school is not directly harming their community. And that’s going to happen, we have to expect that. In part, it’s an indication that many of our institutions are named after white men, and so many other groups are going to want a piece of a pie so that it makes sense. But we have to have priorities in terms of who we are centering, whose voices we are centering in that conversation based on who has been harmed by the naming of the institution, the school, the street, whatever it might be. This is where bold and courageous leadership comes into play. And we have to recognize that the policies that we’ve put in place around renaming schools are not neutral. We have to recognize that context matters, that history matters, that no policy exists, an isolation of policies and the broader context. And it also requires a type of bold leadership in which we recognize that silence is complicity. There are so many leaders who are not taking a stand on this, who are staying silent, as though somehow their silence means that they’re disengaging from the conversation. And that simply isn’t the case. You’re either on the side of trying to redress historical injustice and present day injustice, or you’re on the side of trying to maintain it and uphold it because it confers some advantage.
So this is where, as we have these difficult dialogues, there’s going to be a lot of grey. There’s going to be a lot of ambiguity. There’s going to be a lot of discontent. And we need to expect that. And at the end of the day, after all of those views have been heard and that people have heard each other’s views, that is when some sort of democratic process, whether it be through voting or whether it be through some form of process, needs to happen where people can then have their voice heard through some sort of decision making process.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m going to ask a question that kind of sounds like a joke. It’s really not, though. It’s just kind of an obvious thought, given what we’ve learned over the last few years about how our standards change and how we judge historical figures changes over time, should we maybe just stop, like, now, naming things after people proactively?
Dr. Vidya Shah: You know, there’s a Yes and a No to that answer. For me, on the one hand, that would be a very easy, simple solution. But on the other hand, we would just find another way to make sure that the particular voices get heard. One of the things I think about in this conversation is who has not been commemorated, you know, who are the Black and Indigenous and racialized leaders, activists, people really pushing for change from different faith backgrounds, from different gender identities and sexualities that have fought against depression, have risked their lives, have displayed tremendous levels of courage to stand for justice for humanity that we don’t even know about as a society because they’re not commemorated, they’re not known. And so in many ways, this can also be an opportunity to challenge the single stories of so many communities and an opportunity for our collective learning and unlearning about who it is we want to center and to really broaden the spectrum of where we are finding people worthy of commemorating.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I love the idea of using schools to bring historical figures that have not gotten their due from Black and Indigenous communities to prominence. That seems like a no brainer for me, too. But I want to ask you about things beyond schools. This is where, again, I see a little bit of a grey line and I want to poke at it a little bit. Toronto is discussing, as you mentioned, renaming Dundas Street and Dundas Square because of Dundas’ opposition to ending slave trade, which totally makes sense. But once we get into streets where there are thousands and thousands of them, and every town potentially has multiple streets named after historical white men who did really awful things, how do you look at it at that scale and try to contemplate? Because that seems now like we’re talking about a massive undertaking.
Dr. Vidya Shah: This is a great question, and it’s a great question, because the renaming, as you said, of schools and institutions is much easier. But of cities, I think about Dundas, for example, we have subway stations, we have all kinds of things that are connected to that name. And where does it end?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right!
Dr. Vidya Shah: Oftentimes, people that are looking to make performative surface level change can potentially use this idea of renaming as a scapegoat to actually addressing other policies, practices, structural pieces that give rise to sort of present day injustices, differences in realities, differences in everyday experiences. So I caution that too much of a focus on renaming schools and renaming institutions in cities, too much of a focus on that actually takes the focus away from the fact that in schools, for example, we know that there’s tremendous anti-Black racism, there’s tremendous anti-Indigenous racism that’s playing out. There’s many other forms of racism that are playing out. And if all of the focus is on renaming schools or all of the focus in City Hall is renaming Dundas, what about all of the other policies around housing, around policing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yup.
Dr. Vidya Shah: Around health care, all the other institutions that impact people’s everyday lives that are causing tremendous and sort of reproducing various forms of anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous racism. What about that? And so we have to be really careful here that while it’s important to be having these discussions, that we are putting policies in place for any sort of naming going forward and that we are redressing very obvious examples of Dundas or Egerton Ryerson or Benjamin Vaughan. But that we are also recognizing that this is not a way for us to absolve our responsibility as leaders, as systems, as organizations, as institutions, of looking at the way that we are complicit in the ongoing harm of people every single day. It’s easy to say, Oh, somebody else named that street, somebody else named that school. I’m going to come in as the saviour and just rename it and look like the good person here. But the real work is also about, in what ways are my actions, are my silence, are my complicity perpetuating harm every single day?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So this has been a great conversation from the macro level. Before I let you go, I wonder if you could sort of take it down to the micro level and tell me exactly about the panel that you’re on and what it’s going to do. Who else is on it, what schools are you looking to rename, and what are you actually doing, like, right now, what are the next steps?
Dr. Vidya Shah: So, again, I want to really just acknowledge the Toronto District School Board for being a leader in many sort of equity initiatives in our province. And like any institution, it recognizes that it needs to continue and continue moving forward. But the fact that there’s a committee in place that’s looking at this and the committee currently is at the stage where we are looking to put a call out for community members to get people involved. And so it’s a really exciting time. It’s a recognition that this is not a decision to be made alone by folks within the TDSB. They’ve reached out to people like myself and faculties of education, and they’re now reaching out to folks in communities and from various communities to ensure that there is a really wholesome representation of who’s on that committee.
And this is all part of it. This is all part of bringing people together towards a common goal. And ask him, how do we go about doing this? And from there, the intent is to sort of roll out a plan. And one of the things that I think is so important, especially for schools, is to involve young people, to involve the students, to involve families in these conversations. It’s so powerful to be able to be a young person and to know that your voice is being heard, that it’s making a difference, that you’re learning about injustices in your very own school, in your very own space, and you’re developing the tool set to be able to stand against it, to again, have your voice heard in a meaningful way. And so for other school boards that are looking to do this, the importance of involving young people and not just the selected few that get tapped to be part of particular conversations. But for this to be conversations that are happening in every school where educators are taking up these conversations with young people is such an important part of the building of social and critical consciousness that’s needed around this work.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dr. Shah, thank you so much for this conversation.
Dr. Vidya Shah: Jordan, it’s been my absolute pleasure. Thank you.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Dr. Vidya Shah of York University. That was The Big Story. For more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, the address is thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. If you like this podcast, follow us or subscribe to us in your favourite podcast player. Leave a rating, leave a review, and tell two or three other people. Keep a good thing going.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page