York Region Trustees Settle on New School Name

Hodan Nalayeh
Hodan Nalayeh

A circuitous route marred by accusations of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism arrived back to where things began when trustees of the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) on Feb. 23 settled on a new name for the former Vaughan Secondary School.

It was the same name that was preferred by a plurality of respondents in last autumn’s community-wide survey: Hodan Nalayeh.

Trustees on the YRDSB property management committee voted 6-1 to submit the name of the late Somali-Canadian journalist and activist for approval by the school board, which meets March 2.

The lone hold-out was David Sherman, trustee for Markham Ward 1 and Vaughan Ward 5, who has been at the centre of a controversy for questioning the results of the public consultation.

Sherman claimed the survey did not adequately reflect the wishes of residents in Thornhill, where the high school is located. When the results were broken down more deeply, they showed that respondents from Thornhill alone preferred the name of Elie Wiesel, the late Holocaust survivor, author and human rights advocate, over Nalayeh’s.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Sherman said Wiesel’s was the “most requested name from the local school community and more broadly, in Thornhill.”

However, his choice for a new name was neither Wiesel nor Nalayeh, but Mary Ann Shadd, the anti-slavery activist, publisher, lawyer and teacher. He said the choice brought “balance” to the debate, as Shadd’s was “the only name on the (short) list that directly represents somebody who fought against slavery and counteracts the impact of (slave owner and school namesake) Benjamin Vaughan,” and has local support as well.

Submitting anything but the name of Nalayeh, which was the first choice of 42.5 percent of respondents in last November’s survey, would be “like a slap in the face of the Black community,” replied trustee Elizabeth Sinclair.

Sherman’s motion to name the school after Shadd was defeated 6-1. Trustees later voted by the same margin to submit the name of Nalayeh.Trustees voted to strip the school’s name last September because Benjamin Vaughan owned slaves throughout the British West Indies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Over the months, the debate turned divisive.

When an activist for a Black community group charged Sherman with “the audacity of privilege,” Sherman said he took the words to mean “Jewish privilege.”

Last month, he tweeted: “Thornhill overwhelmingly supports naming local high school for a Holocaust survivor. Shame on those who call this ‘Jewish privilege.’ Jewish voices count.”

In an online town hall on Feb. 17, Shernett Martin of ANCHOR – the African-Canadian National Coalition Against Hate, Oppression and Racism (formerly the Vaughan African Canadian Association) tore into Sherman, saying “to publicly state that we are anti-Semitic is vulgar language and we take offense to it. It is not only hurtful and hateful, it was a blatant lie.”

She called on Sherman to apologize.Thornhill Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, senior rabbi at Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto, issued a statement supporting naming the school 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.”

A school’s name “should reflect the wishes of students, parents and the community in which it resides,” Sherman told Tuesday’s meeting. “There is a balance of interests.”He did not respond to requests for comment.