It’s time to rename Vaughan Secondary School

Hodan Nalayeh
Hodan Nalayeh

Consider a Jewish family living in the fictional town of Blair, Ont., somewhere north of Toronto. It’s 1973, and Jewish children born after the Holocaust have moved north where land is plentiful and housing affordable.

That was the year the local school board opened several new secondary schools. The first was named after Frederick Blair, former director of Canada’s immigration branch during the Mackenzie King government. Blair was a church elder, had a sterling record as a dedicated and loyal Canadian civil servant; the town was already named after him, so why not a secondary school, too? No one really gave it much more thought.

Nine years later, the Jewish community is hit with a bombshell: Professors Irving Abella and Harold Troper documented the anti-Semitic policies of Canada’s immigration branch in the leadup to the Shoah, and even as it was going on. As the authors revealed, Blair denied entry to desperate Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe. It is believed that he or one of his acolytes issued the infamous answer that would become the title of Abella and Troper’s book when asked “how many Jews shall we permit into Canada?

”None is too many.”

It hit the Jewish families hard in Blair, knowing that so many of their children attended a school that bore the name of a vile anti-Semite. The Jewish community demanded that the school be renamed. A vigorous advocacy campaign was undertaken. Frederick Blair Secondary School was renamed Simon Wiesenthal High School, after the famous Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter. The village of Blair embraced the change. It was the right thing to do.Blair, of course, doesn’t exist, but there is a place north of Toronto, Thornhill, where a similar but real story is playing out.

The local York Regional District School Board (YRDSB) voted to rename Vaughan Secondary School last September. “Mr. Vaughan, who was born in Jamaica of British and Anglo-American parents,” an accompanying report said, “explained that from his personal experience, ending the system of slavery in Jamaica would mean the end of civilization in that country. Mr. Vaughan believed that enslavement was good for Africans.”

The report continued: “There is no question that the Black students living in the City of Vaughan and attending Vaughan Secondary School are or will become aware of the true history of Benjamin Vaughan, and this history will affect their sense of belonging and well-being.”

A YRDSB-developed online consultation’s results were clear: The school should be named after Hodan Nalayeh, a Somali-Canadian Black journalist who was killed in a terrorist bombing in her native Somalia. The consultative naming process may not have been perfect, and a local trustee has also argued that the school should be named after a Holocaust survivor, perhaps Elie Wiesel, a second choice in the process. Nevertheless, the time has come for all of us, no matter our faith or colour of our skin, to stand together.In the future, there will be more schools to name in York Region. With proper consultation, perhaps a future school could actually be named after a living Holocaust survivor who has done exemplary work telling their story and furthering the cause of kindness, love and diversity.

But now, the YRDSB quite rightly chose to remove the name “Benjamin Vaughan” from the school. It canvassed constituents and allowed for others as well to suggest a new name. Let us now move forward and be proud that our children and generations to follow will attend Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School.