Niji Mahkwa School is an anomaly — not only because of its holistic programming or because it is one of few schools in the province’s largest division whose name is a nod to an Indigenous concept.
Nearly 30 years after the Winnipeg elementary school was given its name by a student who dreamt of it and elders who endorsed it, the values Niji Mahkwa represents still reflect ones held today by students, teachers and families alike.
The translation of the Anishinaabemowin phrase into English is, "my friend the bear," or "brother, sister bear."
"Our names tell us who we are and where we come from, and so when we look at this name, it tells us about the bear — it represents strength and healing," said Helen Robinson-Settee, a former teacher-librarian who worked at the school when it was renamed in the mid-90s.
"The children who attend the school carry that spirit with them while they are attending and even when they graduate."
There is increasing concern about naming schools after historical figures who held racist views and built systems to assimilate Indigenous people.
Later this week, trustees in the Pembina Trails School Division will consider renaming Ryerson School, which is a tribute to Egerton Ryerson, a public school leader in Ontario in the 1800s who was an architect of the residential school system.
Signage at Oscar Blackburn School in South Indian Lake, in northern Manitoba, was taken down this month after community leaders learned the school was named after a merchant who helped send Indigenous children to residential school.
“What’s going on now is actually a reckoning with the reality that the way most non-Indigenous people learn about history is a white-washed, sanitized, overly celebratory account of Canada’s history." — Sean Carleton, assistant professor in history and native studies at the University of Manitoba
An elementary school in Weston will soon get a new name, after trustees voted to cut ties with Cecil Rhodes, a former prime minister of what is now known as South Africa, whose ideas laid the groundwork for racist apartheid policies.
As far as historian Sean Carleton is concerned, the evolution of names is a positive sign.
"What’s going on now is actually a reckoning with the reality that the way most non-Indigenous people learn about history is a white-washed, sanitized, overly celebratory account of Canada’s history," said Carleton, an assistant professor in history and native studies at the University of Manitoba.
The historian counters the argument that renaming erases history by suggesting the move replaces a celebratory memorial rather than history itself; social studies teachers will continue talking about figures such as Ryerson, but in a more critical and nuanced way, Carleton added.
Divisions in Manitoba generally require facilities to be named after local landmarks, community areas, or pay tribute to renowned people of historical significance.
In 2017, a review of K-12 school names in the Winnipeg School Division found 56 were named after people while 24 buildings had names that were places, things or concepts.
"We say it on announcements. We wear it on T-shirts. It goes home on letterhead. The students begin to identify as a community under (their school) name, so I began wondering how much people knew about these names and the histories and stories that they told," said Katya Adamov Ferguson, a PhD student at the U of M and educator in Winnipeg.
In her thesis study, Adamov Ferguson found a theme among the names: they often pay tribute to white European colonialists, missionaries and explorers who were men who lived between the 18th and 20th centuries.
The roster of Winnipeg school names also ignores the history, culture and contributions of Indigenous people, normalizes solely English names, and erases Indigenous place names, she said.
Carleton said schools in Canada were often given names to honour the British empire. For example, not one, but two schools in central Winnipeg are named after Sir Winston Churchill, who served as prime minister of the United Kingdom in the 1940s.
“What is needed is to take this time as an opportunity to rename these institutions and buildings in a thoughtful way that can align us closer to Mother Earth." — Myra Laramee, an elder and knowledge keeper at the Winnipeg School Division
Meantime, only Norquay, Children of the Earth and Niji Mahkwa schools make connections to Indigenous peoples or concepts in the division, per the 2017 study.
After Aberdeen School closed in the North End — in turn terminating a tribute to a former governor-general in Canada in the late 1800s, Aboriginal Elementary School took over the plot at 461 Flora Ave. It was later renamed Niji Mahkwa.
Now the director of Manitoba Education’s Indigenous inclusion directorate, Robinson-Settee said that name reflects a commitment to cultural and linguistic learning, in addition to academics and technological lessons.
Students, school staff, grandparents and elders all took part in the naming process in the '90s, she said, adding communities of all kinds should to come together if renaming is on the table at their institution.
Myra Laramee, an elder and knowledge keeper at the Winnipeg School Division, echoed those sentiments.
"What is needed is to take this time as an opportunity to rename these institutions and buildings in a thoughtful way that can align us closer to Mother Earth," added Laramee, in a statement. "We already have examples of this kind of naming process with schools such as École Waterford Springs School."
Adamov Ferguson wants divisions to review their naming policies.
Her suggestions for future school names include honouring Indigenous place names, residential school survivors or Indigenous leaders, such as retired senator Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or child welfare activist Cindy Blackstock.
Discussions about names open up conversations about issues of power and more pressing issues, such as access to clear water on First Nations, Adamov Ferguson said.
"There's a stark contrast between 215 unnamed children in unnamed and unmarked mass graves and then you have, above ground, all these European stories and colonizers being etched into stone and meant to last... and I think there’s a bigger movement possible," she said.
"The teacher in me just sees (renaming) as such a teachable moment to involve history and culture and language."
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.