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Protest takes fight over Calgary school's name to the school board's steps

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Protesters lined the street outside the Calgary Board of Education Centre Tuesday morning, tying red ribbons around the building to symbolize what they say is a bureaucracy impeding truth and reconciliation efforts.

The Reconciliation Action Group, the group behind the protest, wants to change the name of Sir John A. Macdonald school in Calgary's northwest.

The reason for the change is because of the former prime minister's involvement with Canada's residential school system.

"This is a person who's also, you know, had a long standing issue of creating the system that has caused a genocide of people that we are now finding graves around the schools," said Michelle Robinson of Reconciliation Action.

“I think that we have to be honest as Canadians that we don't want to perpetuate racism by glorifying racists."

The CBE formed a committee to review the possibility of changing the name of Sir John A. Macdonald school nearly a year ago, but there has been no update on potential changes.

In a statement Tuesday to CTV News, the CBE wrote, "we can confirm that the work of the name review committee for Sir John A. Macdonald School is underway."

Not everyone believes Macdonald's name should be stripped from the Calgary middle school.

Patrick Flynn showed up at the protest wearing a sign that read "John A. Canadian Hero" and strode back and forth while protesters shouted catcalls at him.

Flynn is a former student of the school and believes keeping the name is important.

"John A. Macdonald has flaws. My goodness, don't we all. However, he's a great leader, brought Confederation, created this country, created (the) tariff system. He was a person who quite honestly, facilitated the growth (of Canada)."

"I know a lot of people will say it was baked on to the backs of Aboriginals, and that's understandable. But you cannot forget history," Flynn said.

"You particularly cannot just wipe his name off of a school, particularly a school that was put there for the 100th anniversary of the Confederation."

The CBE passed a motion to form the committee on April 26, 2022, to review the current name of the junior high school in the northwest community of Huntington Hills, but the protesters Tuesday say they have seen no action thus far.

"Our voices are barely acknowledged, let alone actually listened to. We have been working on this project for almost two years, and that is two years too long," said Makena Halvorsen, a student at Sir John A. Macdonald School.

"Due to the lack of change, students still have to go to school and be reminded of the horrible person who has created inter-generational harm."

At a Tuesday public meeting of the CBE, board chair Laura Hack read a prepared statement saying there "is no room for racism or discrimination" in any of Calgary's schools.

"The CBE has taken significant steps in the past few years to address systemic racism and promote equitable and inclusive learning and working environments. We recognize more needs to be done and we are listening and learning so we can continue to do better."

Tuesday's protest highlighted concerns surrounding the mascot of the "Chiefs" at John G. Diefenbaker High School, which currently depicts an Indigenous headdress.

"It is deeply disappointing that the school continues to use "Chiefs" as the school mascot despite their alleged position on issues regarding racism and inequality. Continued use of this mascot harms Indigenous students," said grade 10 student Fernanda Ortiz.

"Our school should be a safe and caring environment where everyone feels welcome. Changing this mascot would be an important and genuine step towards anti-racism." 

The group says Ortiz's concerns have been forwarded up to higher levels of the CBE, and it awaits their action.

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