Vaughan High School Renaming Continues to Roil

Hodan Nalayeh
Hodan Nalayeh

While it was not quite the raucous event some had predicted, emotions did run high at times during a Feb. 17 virtual town hall on renaming the former Vaughan Secondary School in Thornhill.

The three-hour-plus marathon got off to a spirited start when community activist Shernett Martin blasted local school board trustee David Sherman for his “vile and horrific accusations” against her and her organization, ANCHOR – the African-Canadian National Coalition Against Hate, Oppression and Racism (formerly the Vaughan African Canadian Association).“

To publicly state that we are anti-Semitic is vulgar language and we take offense to it,” Martin said. “It is not only hurtful and hateful, it was a blatant lie. We are still waiting for a public apology.

“What you did, Mr. Sherman, is beneath the role and dignity of a public school trustee.”Sherman, the board’s trustee for Markham Ward 1 and Vaughan Ward 5, has been at the centre of a controversy for opposing the outcome of a public consultation which showed that the overwhelming choice for a new name for the school was Hodan Nalayeh, after the late Somali-Canadian journalist and activist.

The name of Holocaust survivor, author and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel was the second choice overall in the survey, held last November.Sherman has alleged that the consultation’s methods were flawed. He has said that in Thornhill, where the school is located, Wiesel was preferred over Nalayeh, something that was not reflected in the survey, and that the results were skewed by respondents from outside York Region and even outside the country.

In a statement last month, Martin wrote: “The audacity of privilege is on full display here. Rather than Trustee Sherman and the Jewish community working with the Black community to support our efforts to honour the life of Hodan Nalayeh, a Black Muslim woman, they are fighting against us to name the school after someone else.”

Sherman later told The CJN he took Martin’s words to mean “Jewish privilege,” an accusation she forcefully denied.A few days later, Sherman tweeted: “Thornhill overwhelmingly supports naming local high school for a Holocaust survivor. Shame on those who call this ‘Jewish privilege.’ Jewish voices count.”

Sherman further said he does not oppose “the inclusion” of Nalayeh, and accused Black activists of taking issue with the inclusion of Holocaust survivors. Martin called that “an outright lie.”

Said Martin at the town hall: “What should have been a very easy decision and selection has now become something we are defending ourselves (from), when someone tries to drive a wedge between the Jewish community and the Black community, and we will not stand for it.”

Trustees voted to strip the school’s name last September because its 18th century namesake, Benjamin Vaughan, owned slaves throughout the British West Indies.

The naming dispute has left a bitter taste in the local Black and Jewish communities. Many speakers at the town hall voiced dismay that the continuing debate even after the consultation ended has marginalized Black residents and caused hurt.

Several speakers including Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Ontario, voiced support for the school to be named after Wiesel.Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto synagogue in Thornhill, was supposed to address the town hall but time ran out before he could. He sent The CJN his statement, in which he supports naming the school after Nalayeh.

“Imagine we discovered that a school was named after a known anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathizer,” Rabbi Korobkin’s statement asked. “We successfully campaigned for months to have that person’s name removed from the school. Would we then feel it fair that the school be renamed after someone non-Jewish, who was not the victim of anti-Semitism?

“Let us use this teaching moment to show that peace and co-operation are more important than principled protocols,” his statement read.

On Feb. 5, Rabbi Micah Streiffer and the leadership of Temple Kol Ami in Thornhill issued a statement distancing itself from “accusations of outside votes that influenced the decision on the matter of the renaming of Vaughan Secondary School, or that leaders of the Black community objected to the inclusion of Holocaust survivors for consideration in the renaming of the school. These statements, made by a single trustee of the York Region District School Board, do not represent the Jewish community in any way.”

Sherman told The CJN he will present his recommendation on Feb. 23. The board’s property management committee then considers it, and the full board decides on March 2 whether to support the committee’s recommendation.