Patti Bacchus: Renaming Crosstown elementary a chance for Vancouver School Board to do the right thing

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      Crosstown is a fine name for a bus route or a low-rent strip mall, or perhaps a condo complex built on formerly vacant suburban land. But it’s a bland and meaningless moniker for a school built on the edge of Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, in a vibrant urban community with a rich and fascinating history.

      It’s a gentrification name that obliterates the past in a misguided gesture toward a shiny new future—a rebranding that paves over the lives, contributions, and tribulations of those who came before. A building that’s dedicated to the education of present and future generations of Vancouver children deserves something better.

      It’s not too late to replace “Crosstown”

      But first, how did such an affront to local history come to pass?

      It took years for the Vancouver School Board (VSB) to convince the former B.C. Liberal government to fund the elementary school to accommodate the growing school-aged population living in Vancouver’s downtown. I was relieved and happy to join then-education minister George Abbott in the summer of 2012 to finally sign a funding agreement to build the new school. It was a challenging and exciting project from the start: building an urban school on a small site, adjacent to a condominium tower. We hit several delays as we wrangled with the strata council next door and worked through multiple logistical problems. While it sometimes felt like it would never be completed, the project team worked several small miracles and, lo and behold, the school was ready for occupancy in the spring of 2017.

      From the project’s early days, we knew it would be a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bestow a school with a name the acknowledged and honoured Chinese Canadians’ contributions to the city. As long-time VSB trustee Allan Wong often points out, none of the VSB’s 110 schools has a Chinese name, although many are named after British royalty and military figures.

      We seldom build brand-new schools, and in my eight years on the VSB, we had the chance to name just one: an elementary school out near the University of British Columbia (UBC). We decided to call it Norma Rose Point, after a respected and much-loved Musqueam elder and educator. It was a fitting name for the beautiful school that’s nestled among trees on unceded land in Musqueam territory.

      I believe it’s the perfect name for that school, although there was stiff opposition from the school’s parent advisory council, which argued in favour of keeping the school’s temporary project name, “Acadia Road” on the basis that the students attending the new school already identified with the name. I respectfully noted at the time that trustees must consider not only the present but also, importantly, the past and the future in selecting a school name. I expect several generations of students will spend years attending Norma Rose Point, long after the trustees are gone from this world. The name should reflect what we respect, value, and honour, and what we want future generations to know.

      Which brings us to the unfortunate decision the name the school “Crosstown”

      After former B.C. Liberal education minister Mike Bernier fired the elected Vancouver school board in 2016 for refusing to approve a budget with deep cuts, he appointed an “official trustee” to take over. The appointee was Dianne Turner, a former high-school principal and superintendent of the Delta school district.

      As an unelected caretaker trustee, Turner made few decisions of import but was, however, tasked with naming the VSB’s newest school, located at the corner of Abbott Street and Expo Boulevard, on the edge of Chinatown. She considered names proposed by a committee, and despite the objections of the Vancouver district parent advisory council, inexplicably chose “Crosstown”, a name that means absolutely nothing to this born-and-raised Vancouverite.

      In a perverse sense, Crosstown’s a perfect representation of much that ails present-day Vancouver, with its overheated real-estate market where local residents are being displaced by global capital that’s flooding into communities, turning them into investment commodities instead of places where people live. But I don’t think that’s what Turner was going for.  

      VSB to consider renaming Crosstown at its meeting on January 29

      Now that there’s an elected board back in charge, long-time VSB trustee Allan Wong is asking it to give Crosstown a name that addresses and acknowledges the contributions of Chinese Canadians and the importance of Chinatown to our city’s history, along with an Indigenous name. It’s a timely and fitting move for a city of reconciliation that’s issuing a formal apology in April for historical discrimination of Chinese people in Vancouver and for what Mayor Gregor Robertson calls the “reprehensible actions of people here in leadership positions in Vancouver".

      Speaking of reprehensible actions, when Wong tried to bring a motion to the board to rename the school before the winter break, he got a stern lecture from the board’s acting superintendent, John Lewis, about the importance of strictly following board policy and procedures. When I picture what patriarchy looks like, I see older white men like Lewis, wearing reading glasses and giving stern lectures about arcane policy and processes as they firmly defend the status quo and oppress those who try to disrupt it.

      Experienced in dealing with obstructionist bureaucrats, Wong persevered and the Crosstown renaming issue was discussed again on January 10 at a VSB standing committee meeting. Representatives from the Crosstown PAC came out to speak in support of keeping the school’s unfortunate name, saying they and the students had bonded with it and noting they’d been part of the school from its beginning in 2014, when a temporary start-up school was formed at Seymour elementary under the name “International Village”. You read that right, 2014—not exactly what I’d call a community with deep, meaningful roots and attachments. Holy moly, it feels like the Norma Rose Point versus Acadia Road battle all over again.

      I’m confident that just like the Norma Rose Point parents and students, they’ll have the strength and resilience to adjust to a new and more appropriate name.

      That leads to the question of who should have the most say in naming a school? Should trustees consider the broader historical, cultural, and geographical context, including the effects of discrimination and racism, and what a name will represent 10, 20, 30, or even 100 years from now? Or should the students who attend the school now have the most say, based on their personal relationship with the school?

      I think back to that 2013 fight to keep the name Acadia Road—which was never intended to be a permanent name—because some six- and seven-year-olds liked it. Good grief. I really can’t think of anything more ridiculous than giving a school a name it will bear for generations in order to placate young children and parents from a relatively privileged group that are passing through now and ignoring history, culture, and the broader community and context. I’m usually all for student voice, but that school doesn’t belong to them any more than it belongs to the trustees. It belongs to all of us and to generations to come.   

      Time for the VSB to give Crosstown a worthy name

      Trustees need to think beyond the immediate and present school community and agree to rename the school. They have a once-in-several-generations opportunity to give the school a worthy name that acknowledges and honours people and groups that have been discriminated against and whose contributions haven’t been given the recognition they deserve. It’s an opportunity to show students of today and tomorrow that the VSB embraces and celebrates the diversity of the city and the contributions of those whose backgrounds aren’t reflected by British royalty.

      Wong hopes the board will name the new school after Won Alexander Cumyow, the first person of Chinese descent to be born in Canada (in 1861) and the only Chinese person who was registered to vote in the election before and after the Chinese were disenfranchised.

      Cumyow grew up in New Westminster and studied law in Victoria. He spoke English, Cantonese, Hakka, and Chinook jargon, which enabled him to work with Indigenous communities. He later become a court interpreter who was known as a humble man who fought for many important community and social causes, including building a playground in Chinatown. Known as a bridge builder between communities, he went on to have 10 children and named one of them Victor Vancouver Cumyow, after the city he loved so much. His granddaughter (Becky) was a VSB elementary teacher and his well-educated children and grandchildren became professionals who helped Vancouver’s Chinese community integrate with others. I can’t think of a better name for the school than Won Alexander Cumyow.

      I’m not alone in supporting Wong’s campaign to rename Crosstown. The city’s Children, Youth and Families Advisory Committee passed a motion last week in support of scrapping Crosstown and giving it a more significant name, saying civic assets should acknowledge the past and present cultural heritage of an area to support children and youth in their understanding of our shared history. Hear, hear.

      It’s not often school trustees get an opportunity like this. Wasting it would be perpetuating the discriminatory mistakes and oversights of the past and would be another in a long, shameful line of reprehensible actions by local leaders. Let’s hope the trustees make the right decision on Monday night. Future generations will thank them.


      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.