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Island school named for racist getting new name on Truth and Reconciliation Day

Port Alberni’s former A.W. Neill School to formally receive new name Sept. 29
The letters “A.W. Neill” were removed from a Port Alberni elementary school on Sept. 8, 2021. The new name, Tsuma-as, will go up on Sept. 29. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Port Alberni’s school district will mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by hosting a renaming ceremony for Tsuma-as Elementary School.

The school, formerly known as A.W. Neill Elementary School, was renamed by the School District 70 (Pacific Rim) board back in June. The new name is the Nuu-chah-nulth name for the Somass River. According to Dave Maher, a district principal and one of the event organizers, the word translates to “little creek flowing in.”

“The board selected a new name, one that is looking at the future,” said Maher. “The renaming ceremony will be a major act of reconciliation with the nations who went to the school and whose land the school lies on.”

Maher explained that the SD70 cultural council gave guidance on how to hold the renaming ceremony respectfully and honour the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This cultural council is made up of 11 Nuu-chah-nulth knowledge keepers and elders who help the district develop curriculum and learning. The council also guides and gives the district some direction on following Nuu-chah-nulth protocols.

The ceremony will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 29—the day before the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation—so that students will be able to take part in it. The ceremony will be livecast over a streaming service to all classrooms and all schools in the district.

“This is a major piece of learning,” Maher explained. “We’re not just honouring the day, but helping a cultural shift.”

School district officials and representatives from Tseshaht First Nation, Hupacasath First Nation and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council will be at the ceremony. There will also be support workers on hand from KUU-US Crisis Line Society in case the ceremony is triggering to anyone.

The school board first voted to change the name of the school back in 2020 after years of discussion, public engagement and the adoption of a name-changing policy. The school was previously named after Alan Webster Neill, who was an Alberni mayor, a member of the B.C. Legislature and an MP for Comox-Alberni.

However, Neill was also a federal Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island and was involved in the operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School. He was also vocally racist against those of Asian heritage, making multiple efforts in the House of Commons to deny voting rights to Asian immigrants.

The name “A.W. Neill” was taken down from the school on Sept. 8 and the new name will be put up on Sept. 29.

Community members and former Neill students are invited to take part in the ceremony, either in person or by watching the livestream. The link to the livestream will be available on the SD70 website ( on the morning of the 29th. The ceremony is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m.

RELATED: ‘Racist’ MP’s name removed from Port Alberni school

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Elena Rardon

About the Author: Elena Rardon

I have worked with the Alberni Valley News since 2016.
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