The Prince George school board is considering naming a new school being built to replace Kelly Road Secondary School to reflect the Hart Highway area's history as a traditional grizzly bear hunting ground.
Prince George school district vice-chair Trent Derrick forwarded the motion to begin those discussions, which was unanimously approved by trustees at Tuesday's public meeting following a presentation by the chief and elders of the Lheidli Tenneh First Nation who suggested the school be named Shas Ti Secondary School, instead of Kelly Road.
Shas ti, in the Dakelh language, means "grizzly path."
"Part of reconciling is looking at the past before the past that some people know - I know we have our stories and those stories kind of haven't been told," said Lheidli T'enneh Chief Clay Pountney. "I know name changes have happened before and a lot of people are very attached to Kelly Road. We don't want to stir the pot, so we want to find a way to make it work."
Elders Clifford Quaw and Kenora Stewart told trustees about the centuries of tradition the Lheidli T'enneh people had picking berries along the trails between the Salmon River and the Cranbrook Hill campus where UNBC now sits and how they used that area to hunt grizzly bears for their hides.
Quaw was encouraged by the board's willingness to consider the name change and said it will involve a gradual process to gather community support.
"I'm really glad to have this recommendation and they backed us up in what we're doing, it means a lot to the Lheidli T'enneh," said Quaw. "You're going to have pushback. They're going to have a lot of people questioning,'Why do you want to change it now? Kelly Road has been here for so many years.
"The Lheidli T'enneh have been here for thousands of years," he said. "It's truth and reconciliation, and the truth is hard to digest. Reconciliation generally starts with each person and the school board to say the Lheidli T'enneh have been here longer than Kelly Road and all the schools combined."
Derrick said the board needs to be proactive in strengthening its relationships within the Indigenous community, which makes up nearly 30 per cent of all students in School District 57. He welcomes the opportunity to continue discussions with partner groups about the name change proposal.
"Truth and reconciliation is not an empty phrase but a living spirit, a connection binding us together for the betterment of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren," said Derrick. "Shas ti is the grizzly trail, the long history of the grizzly living in the Kelly Road area and the long history of the Lhiedli T'enneh people respecting the trail of the grizzly bear and the trails it walked.
"It is a great story that needs to be told from generation to generation and we have a chance to honour the long history of the Lheidli T'enneh and make a statement that this board will be different in its relationship with the Lheidli T'enneh, and that's why I made this recommendation."
The $44.3 million school, expected to open in September, will hold 900 students and will replace the original Kelly Road built in the early 1960s. The new building sits behind the current school on Handlen Road. Demolition of the old school is expected to start this fall and be completed in the spring of 2021.
Trustee Bob Thompson, who represents the Robson Valley, said the name change is more than a symbolic gesture.
"I think the time for talking about reconciliation is over and now is the time to take action and I think we need to pursue this," Thompson said.
There has already been one example of a school name change when Carney Hill Elementary School on Victoria Street became an aboriginal choice school in 2012 and was renamed Nusdeh Yoh School. The name change required 18 months of consultation and a vote to settle on the name Nusdeh Yoh, whose English translation means "the house of the future."
In 2015, the city changed the name of Fort George Park to Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park.
"Many people will ask that question,'Why are we doing this?'" said trustee Ron Polillo, "We knew this was coming forward to the board and I've given it a lot of thought and I would like to offer my support to move forward in that process to rename the school.
"But I think we all know it won't be easy and we have to be prepared for that. We have to be very clear in our message why we're doing it and why it's important. I'm proud of this board and this district to take this bold move and I look forward to beginning that process."
Board chair Tim Bennett also knew the proposal would create controversy and that was evident Wednesday when about 100 students at Kelly Road staged a noon-hour protest to express their objections.
"We know that Kelly Road has a history and a legacy in this district and that there is going to be people questioning this decision, but I also think it's the right thing to do," said Bennett. "I look forward to opportunities to stand in front of our public and allow Lheidli T'enneh elders to share their stories in pubic that they shared here (Tuesday) evening to engage our students in the process of developing a new identity for that building.
"I recognize that not everyone will agree and that's OK. This is a good rebirth for the high school north of the Nechako and I fully support this recommendation."
Pountney also asked the board to act on a request made last year to add a trustee seat for a Lheidli T'enneh member.
"Having a Lheidli T'enneh trustee at the board of education table will ensure that we are involved at the highest level of decision making in the district and can provide the support required for Indigenous students to succeed," Pountney said.