Women make up approximately 50 percent of Vancouver’s population. But of the 109 schools within the Vancouver school district, the number named after women fall in the single digits. Of the 18 secondary schools, not one is named after a woman.
When we think of the names of the schools in our communities, do we know who they are named for? Can we think of schools in our communities that are named after Indigenous, Black, Asian, and other racialized leaders? Can we think of schools that are named after women?
The answer is very likely “no” for many of us. As we are having impactful, collective conversations around big topics like justice, racism, sexism, accountability, and representation, we need to ask ourselves what it means for our public education system to not only refuse to acknowledge racialized and women leaders but to hold up some of the most violent and discriminatory leaders, such William Gladstone, for whom Gladstone Secondary School is named.
With his father’s vast plantation scheme in the Caribbean directly benefiting him and his family, Gladstone, a former prime minister of the U.K., advocated strongly in opposition to the abolishment of slavery. Coming to terms with this history, Gladstone has been disowned even by the university of his hometown, Liverpool.
This is significant, as it demonstrates the impact that representation has in shaping our communities, that we are shaped and reshaped by who we choose to hold in high esteem. It follows that who we hold up in our education systems and throughout our communities matters and that we have opportunities to recognize the diversity of great leaders who have made incredible contributions to our society.
As Canada continues to reckon with its historical and ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples, many have called for the renaming of schools named after proponents of colonialism such as Sir John A. Macdonald. It is understood and recognized by many that allowing school names to uphold proponents of colonization sends the wrong message to young people learning within those institutions. In recognition that the histories of Indigenous and Black people on this continent are intertwined due to colonization, we believe it is time for Gladstone secondary to follow the lead of Liverpool University to change its name to one that its students and the wider community can genuinely look up to.
It is Black History Month. When we think of leaders that we can continue to be proud of, one of the worthiest names is that of Rosemary Brown. Rosemary Brown was the first Black Canadian woman elected to serve as a member of the B.C. legislature and the first Black woman (second woman ever) to run for the leadership of a Canadian federal party. She made countless contributions to our community and to our country, and as an accomplished Black woman, she is a meaningful role model to replace Gladstone. There are many, many other outstanding women, such as Nora Hendrix, Vivian Jung, Bessie Chan, Harminder Sanghera, Muriel Kitagawa, and Grace MacInnis.
Together, we are calling both for Gladstone secondary school—as well as for other schools and public spaces across Vancouver that uphold colonial and sexist harm—to transition their names to honour Black, Indigenous, Asian, and racialized women. In doing so, we will teach our children that they can and should aspire to be positive members of their community, and that they must never be afraid to break barriers.
We invite you to join us in advocating for Gladstone secondary and other schools and public places to be named to equitably represent all women.
Gurkamal Brown and Dr. Joy Masuhara are on the board of Women Transforming Cities. Dr Masuhara is a Gladstone secondary graduate.
This article was published in the Georgia Strait. Please support our call to rename public spaces such as Gladstone secondary by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.