In my line of work, I come across the names of many, many high schools—every high school in Canada, in fact. So I began a tally with myself of the number of schools named after women—at first out of curiosity, and later after developing something of a righteous rage.
Many schools in Canada and the US are named after their towns, and Canada’s wealth of delicious place names gives these schools delightfully evocative and fascinating names—Exploit Valley High School, Whistling Wind School, Rainy River High, Swift Current Academy, and the absolutely peerless Eyebrow School of Eyebrow, Saskatchewan. Other schools get the sort of meh names that sound like the board selected names out of a grab bag or The Big Book of High School Name Suggestions, many of which involve trees: West Elm, Oak Park, North Side, Bayview, Hillside, and so on. (Oaks are particularly popular. I can only guess that board officials have an affinity for the national tree of America and fifteen other countries.) Catholic schools are invariably given an identifiably Catholic name, which accounts for the dozens of Notre Dames, Sts. Michael/Peter/Paul, Holy Crosses, and Trinity(s) scattered across North America.
But the remainder of schools are named after people—between a third and a quarter, depending on the area, and the vast majority of these are named after men. “But wait!” I hear. “There are schools named after women!” Indeed there are! Queen Elizabeth alone accounts for eight high schools and countless elementaries across the country. Mary, the mother of Jesus, has at least sixteen and a Canadian university to her credit. Some saints also make the cut—St. Marguerite d’Youville, a founding mother of Montreal, being the heavy hitter in Canada. The majority of Catholic schools named after individuals, though, are named after men—if not saints, then priests and bishops from the area, and furthermore, many of the schools named after female saints started life as all-girls’ schools. So besides royalty and saints, where are the women?
This is not to disparage the many men whom high schools honour in their names. I love that Tommy Douglas, the father of Canadian socialized medicine, has a high school named after him. Sir Frederick Banting, the inventor of synthetic insulin, has two plus a third shared with Charles Best, his co-discoverer. David Suzuki, the environmental scientist, has a school named after him that focuses on environmental impact issues and strives to use as much renewable energy as possible. Terry Fox, who ran over 5,000 kilometers to raise money for cancer while battling his own cancer and using an artificial leg, has a secondary school near his home in British Columbia.
But it is appallingly obvious that in order to have a school named after you, the qualifications for a man are far, far lower than that for a woman. A woman must be royalty, or sainted, or hold some kind of outstanding distinction. For men it is enough to sit on the school board or be an original settler to the area. This is a nationwide phenomenon, not restricted to any one part of the country—in fact, famously liberal British Columbia, oft-derided by the rest of Canada as being full of hippies and pot smokers, has three schools named after women—two of which are named after royalty. The last, Frances Kelsey Secondary School, is named after the brilliant scientist who held back the drug thalidomide from the American market and undoubtedly saved many thousands of children from birth defects.
What other women are found to be worthy enough to name schools after? Nellie McClung, one of the Famous Five who brought a case to the Canadian Parliament that women were persons under the law, has one school named after her in Manitoba—Nellie McClung Collegiate. (The other four of the Famous Five have no such honours.) The artist Emily Carr has one high school, one school of art, and several elementary schools. Laura Secord, a folk hero famed for walking twenty miles to alert the British of an impending American attack during the War of 1812, has a secondary school near the site of her famous walk. There are some inspiring cases, as well: Louise Arbour, the former UN Commissioner for Human Rights and first person to prosecute sexual assault as a crime against humanity, has a secondary school named after her, as does Cairine Wilson, the first female Canadian senator. The high school in Norway House, Manitoba, is named after Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old Cree woman who was kidnapped off the street in The Pas and brutally murdered, making it the only school in the lower ten provinces named after a woman of colour and one who was not otherwise famous or honoured in her community. (In Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories, a large number of schools are named after local chiefs and influential people from the individual nations. There is one school named after Emilie Trembley, the first white woman to travel to the area, in Yukon, and the Northwest Territories has one K-12 school named after Helen Kalvak, an Inuit artist.)
This is not to say that the men who have Canadian secondary schools named after them are not influential men in their communities. But there are so many schools named after men who would have been otherwise forgotten—local reeves and mayors, men who sat on school boards, early settlers to the area who otherwise did not notably contribute to the education system. Harry Colinge High School is named after the first manager of the pulp company that employed a number of adults in the town. T.L Kennedy Secondary is named after a longtime resident and master of the local Masonic lodge. R.D. Parker Collegiate is named after the then-president of Inco, a mining company with a large presence in the town.
So what then of some of Canada’s famous and influential women? Elizabeth Bagshaw, one of Canada’s first female doctors, merits an elementary school. L.M. Montgomery, one of Canada’s most famous authors, has an elementary school. June Callwood, a Toronto journalist and activist who worked tirelessly for women and children; Rosemary Brown, the first black Canadian woman to serve in a provincial legislature; Maud Abbott, another of Canada’s first female doctors and a worldwide expert in heart defects; Harriet Brooks, the first female Canadian nuclear scientist and first woman to receive a Master’s degree from McGill University; Carrie Derick, the first female professor in a Canadian university: none of these women have schools named after them.
The situation is even worse for non-white Canadians of either gender. David Suzuki, as mentioned, and Lincoln Alexander, Canada’s first black Member of Parliament, are the only ones to bear this honour. What, then, of Vivienne Poy, Canada’s first senator of Asian ancestry? Mary Ann Shadd, a black woman and Canada’s first female newspaper publisher? William Gun Chong, a Second World War hero who spent four years of the war traveling through China bringing escapees from occupied territories to freedom? Senator Anne Cools, the first black person in the Canadian Senate and founder of one of Canada’s first women’s shelters? Margaret Gee, the first woman of Asian descent to be called to the bar in British Columbia? Masumi Mitsui, a Japanese immigrant to Canada who served in the Canadian military at Vimy Ridge in the First World War, widely considered to be the cauldron of Canadian nationhood, who was sent to an internment camp in the Second World War despite his status as a decorated war hero? Where are the schools named after these people, who contributed so much to their nation and deserve to be lauded?
But while these men and women go unsought as namesakes for any school, elementary or high school, Canada rejoices in eight Centennials and one Centennial College, seven schools named after Queen Elizabeth, eight after Vincent Massey, six after Winston Churchill, ten after John A. MacDonald, and nine after Lester B. Pearson. That’s forty-eight schools altogether—clearly there is room for more namesakes! There is no danger that Winston Churchill will be forgotten, and no one would say that MacDonald will disappear into the ether of history if fewer schools are named after him.
“Why aren’t you content with elementary school names, though?” They’re automatically coded as lesser. High schools are larger and exert more influence in the community (sometimes a very large amount of influence depending on the size of the community in question), and draw more attention than elementary schools. They receive more funding, teach more students, and form a larger part of the education system in general.
“Why does this matter?” It’s true that it might seem trivial, when women are being treated brutally in other nations and girls being denied the right to education entirely, when children are being treated as disposable slave labour and families are living in abject poverty the globe over. But Canada, having long held itself up as a multicultural mosaic and shining beacon to immigrants of every land, owes more to its children. I want my children and the children of all Canadians to grow up in a land that visibly and publicly honours citizens of every sex and nationality—not only those who are lucky enough to be wealthy white men. And why not? Why not honour a number of visibly diverse people in the names of our high schools? It’s possible—Canadians can do it—and it can only help to increase the number of people we honour in our communities and delight to have inspire our students.
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.