The rain poured down on Tsuma-as Elementary School in Port Alberni as the school officially received its new name.
The ceremony on Wednesday officially unveiled a new name for the school formerly known as “A.W. Neill” in a ceremony aimed as an act of reconciliation.
Alan Webster Neill was an Alberni mayor, a member of the B.C. Legislature and an MP for Comox-Alberni.
But Neill was also a federal Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island and was involved in the operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School. He was also vocally racist against those of Asian heritage, making multiple efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants.
The process began more than six years ago when Rosemarie Buchanan, a trustee for School District 70 and a liaison for A.W. Neill Elementary School, received a message on Facebook from former Port Alberni resident Christopher Stevenson asking her if she knew Neill’s history.
“And I didn’t!” she told the Alberni Valley News at the time. “So I did a little research, and I can’t find any mention of good things that he’s done. He was a reprehensible racist.”
The name of the school was officially changed in June 2021, after years of discussion, public engagement—including consultation with local First Nations.
Representatives from Tseshaht First Nation, Hupacasath First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council all gave their support for the school’s new name. The unveiling ceremony ended with Tsuma-as students singing a Nuu-chah-nulth celebration song, with help from Nuu-chah-nulth education worker Aaron Watts.
Tseshaht’s elected Chief Councillor Wahmeesh Ken Watts presented several gifts to school district representatives.
“For some people, it might just mean a name of a school,” Watts said. “But for me and for many others, it’s a lot more than that. Today is a day that shows that the world is changing. Today the school district has done more than just a simple territorial acknowledgement at the beginning of an event.”
Tseshaht First Nation elected councillor Nasimius Ed Ross explained on Wednesday that the new name, Tsuma-as, means “little creek running all over the ground.” The name was associated with “cleansing” as the autumn rains swelled the river and washed away the remains of fish on the shore during salmon spawning season.
The new name, c’uuma?as or Tsuma-as (pronounced SOO-mahs), is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River.
Greg Smyth, the superintendent for School District 70 (Pacific Rim), said it was “fitting” that the renaming ceremony took place during a rainstorm, since the school was named after a river.
“I’m sure right now Tsuma-as the river is swelling with pride,” he said on Wednesday, Sept. 29.
Smyth acknowledged the research of Prof. Ian Baird, whose account of A.W. Neill’s history assisted the school board’s renaming process. For the last few years, he said, the school district has been looking backwards at a troubled past—and looking forward to a more promising future.
“[A.W. Neill’s] treatment of Asian-Canadians and his support for Indian residential schools did not fit with the [school] district’s values and was not worthy of a school name,” Smyth said. “Tsuma-as the river has been a social, cultural and economic life source for those who have lived on its banks for years. Tsuma-as the school is a similar place of shared community and shared learning.”
Many speakers during Wednesday’s ceremony were former students at Tsuma-as and shared their memories of the school and its teachers.
Wally Samuel, a residential school survivor and a former student at A.W. Neill when it was a junior high, said that Neill School was a “good place” for him as a child because it got him out of the residential school.
“We didn’t know what the name meant,” he said. “It didn’t matter to us back then. But now it matters. Many of us didn’t understand the names that we grew up with.”
The ceremony took place the day before the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation so that school students would be able to take part in it.