Bitter Thornhill School Renaming Comes to an End

Hodan Nalayeh
Hodan Nalayeh

It’s official: The former Vaughan Secondary School in Thornhill will be renamed for Hodan Nalayeh, the late Somali-Canadian journalist and community activist who lived in the area.

But it was a bitter, months-long naming campaign, with heated accusations of anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.

At a March 2 meeting of the York Region District School Board (YRDSB), trustees voted 10-2 to name the school after Nalayeh, whose name was the number one choice of respondents in a community-wide survey held last November.

The board upheld the decision of its property management committee, which earlier voted 6-1 to overrule trustee David Sherman’s choice for a new name – anti-slavery activist Mary Ann Shadd – and voted by the same margin to name the school after Nalayeh.

The moves rebuked Sherman, the board’s lone Jewish trustee, who represents the area in which the high school is located. He had charged that the consultation process was flawed partly because it had not reflected the wishes of Thornhill residents, who preferred that the school be named for a Holocaust survivor like Elie Wiesel, the anti-racism advocate and author.

Last September, trustees voted to strip the school of its namesake, Benjamin Vaughan, an 18th-century British slaveowner.

November’s survey showed that Nalayeh was the first choice, among eight names, of 42.5 percent of respondents, while Wiesel’s name came second, at 17 percent of first-choice selections.

Sherman cast doubt on the consultation’s methods, saying they were skewed by respondents from outside York Region and even outside the country. On several occasions, he stated that “certain communities” gave Nalayeh’s name an unfair boost.

Sherman asked board staff to drill down further into the consultation. A more detailed result showed that Nalayeh received 570 votes overall across all regions, and Wiesel, 281.

But in Thornhill alone, the more detailed study showed that Wiesel outpolled Nalayeh 118-29 across all preferences.

“Thornhill overwhelmingly supports naming local high school for a Holocaust survivor,” Sherman said in a tweet. “Shame on those who call this ‘Jewish privilege.’ Jewish voices count.”

Earlier, he took issue with an accusation that his stance showed “the audacity of privilege,” which he took to mean Jewish privilege.“

To publicly state that we are anti-Semitic is vulgar language and we take offense to it,” Shernett Martin, executive director of ANCHOR – the African-Canadian National Coalition Against Hate, Oppression and Racism (formerly the Vaughan African Canadian Association), countered at a town hall last week. “It is not only hurtful and hateful, it was a blatant lie.”

She said the process had pitted the Black and Jewish communities against each other, and that it was hurtful to the Black community – a sentiment echoed by other trustees and by YRDSB chair Cynthia Cordova.

Sherman stuck to his guns at the March 2 board meeting, saying he cannot recommend the name of Hodan Nalayeh because it is “not supported by the local school community. We even specified Vaughan in our communications, and yet trustees continue to point to the numbers of survey submissions, participants in the town hall, or mass emails received by people who have never set foot in the school, seen it, or even heard of it.” Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue in Thornhill, just east of the high school on Clark Avenue, came out in support of naming it after Nalayeh, while Rabbi Micah Streiffer and the leadership of Thornhill’s Temple Kol Ami said “statements made by a single trustee of the (YRDSB) do not represent the Jewish community in any way.”

Supporting Sherman was the Jewish Defence League of Canada (JDL), which had urged followers to “contact the YRDST (sic) Human Rights Commissioner’s Office and the YRDST (sic) Integrity Commisioner’s (sic) Office. The Jewish Community is being told to be silent regarding the renaming of a School.”

JDL director Meir Weinstein told The CJN that he had “heard from many within the Jewish community, and I consider the attacks against David Sherman to be veiled anti-Semitism.”