Grade 7 student Tye Phillbrick offers his opinion at the Fenwick Fire Hall on Wednesday night. NATE SMELLE PHOTO
Packed house sends message: Leave school, park alone
BY NATE SMELLE
A standing-room -only crowd of 200-plus residents packed the Fenwick Fire Hall last Wednesday evening to ask questions and voice their opposition to the District School Board of Niagara’s controversial renaming of E.W. Farr Public School.
Before a single word was spoken, the message from residents to the school board was loud and clear — names matter to the people of Pelham.
Mayor Dave Augustyn was the first to speak at the meeting, addressing questions regarding an email he sent to DSBN Chair Dale Robinson about the name change in June 2016, an email that some found to be written in an apologetic tone.
Augustyn asserted that the letter was not an apology, because Council unanimously requested the Board to reconsider the naming and provide them with a presentation explaining their decision.
“This discussion occurred in public at our Council meeting and the media could be there and report on it — it was very late in the evening so I don’t blame them if they weren’t there, but it was public so it’s known,” said Augustyn.
“We were also preparing for Council highlights for the website reporting what happened at the meeting for anyone who wants them, and I knew that this was public, and it was going to go out, so as a heads-up to the Chair — and I had already been communicating with the Chair on Friday, June 2 — I sent the email that I sent.”
Although the officials from the DSBN’s school-naming committee were invited to explain their position at the meeting, they did not attend. The school board’s absence angered many in attendance who wanted to understand why the DSBN has refused to reverse their position. Dale Robinson was also invited, however she declined, saying that she would be “on holidays.”
Nancy Beamer spoke on behalf of the citizen group Names Matter. Beamer opposes the DSBN’s decision to rename the school to “Wellington Heights” for many reasons. For one, she asserts that the DSBN chose the name based on flawed research regarding the first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, found online. For another, she said is that the name has no historical significance, since Wellesley never set foot in Pelham, or Canada for that matter. Furthermore, it is documented extensively that Wellesley was an anti-Semite, anti-Catholic philanderer who perpetuated the marginalization of Indigenous people. In fact, he was the sitting prime minister at the time residential schools were established throughout Canada.
“The fact that he was a racist should be offensive to everyone,” said Beamer.
“This is the main reason we do not want Wellington Heights as a name for our school. It’s offensive, it’s not inclusive and it goes against what the Ministry of Education is supposed to stand for.”
She believes that choosing the name of a known racist and a misogynist without any connection to the community, over a well-respected and adored local educator such as E.W. Farr sends the wrong message to children.
As Grade 7 students currently attending E. W. Farr Public School, Tye Phillbrick and Laura Phillips are disturbed by the DSBN’s decision to rename their school Wellington Heights. Phillbrick shared his thoughts on the contentious issue first, describing to the assembly how his hockey teammates reacted when he told them he went to Wellington Heights Public School.
“They said that sounds like a private, rich kids school,” said Phillbrick.
“We also chose the mascot, and some of us wanted the Wellington Heights Warriors, because it went well with the school name. They said it was too violent, yet they chose ‘Wellington Heights’ for the First Duke of Wellington, who was much worse.”
For two generations, the Phillips family have attended E.W. Farr. Hoping that she could carry on the tradition, Laura Phillips said she was very disappointed with the new name because she could no longer follow in her parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps.
“It means a lot to me and my family, because my grandma and my mom went there, and I would like to grow up with the school as E.W. Farr,” she said.
Augustyn also faced tough questions regarding the proposed changes to Cherry Ridge Park and E.W. Farr Public School’s soccer field. Because the school’s expansion ate up the land previously designated as a soccer field, the DSBN pitched the idea of forming a partnership with the Town to build a new one. After residents in Fenwick’s Cherry Ridge subdivision received a survey and draft plan from the DSBN last week, highlighting their intentions, many in the neighbourhood became outraged at the thought of losing the beloved green-space.
“We haven’t agreed to it, what we are doing is getting your feedback on it,” explained Augustyn.
“E.W. Farr had a quasi-soccer field, but they’re smaller kids, right, [and] there was a baseball diamond that wasn’t being used. It’s essentially replacing what was at Pelham Centre and making it available. From the Town’s perspective, it’s not like we are trying to program it or put tournaments there or anything else, it’s more for the school and the community.”
After receiving a report on the DSBN’s proposed redesign for the park in June 2016, Council ordered a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate an appropriate agreement between the Town and the school board. In November 2016, Council received a draft of the proposed redesign.
The new soccer field would be situated partially on school board property and partially on public park lands. Fenwick resident Rob Foster expressed his concerns about the DSBN’s redesign of Cherry Ridge Park. Having worked in municipal planning and public works throughout his career, he said they couldn’t have picked a worse location for a soccer field. Foster is not against the kids having a place to play, however living adjacent to the park, he does not see a need for a soccer field. He said that once the school bell rings, the kids disappear and there is no one playing in the playground.
“A needs analysis should have been done,” said Foster.
“I think you’re short-changing the kids as well as the residents. By building a sub-standard place — that hill is right in the centre of that property line and they are building right on top of it. Not only does it affect how we use the park, it will also have an environmental impact. You will be cutting old-growth trees down for no reason whatsoever.”
Others took issue with the survey letter itself, given the tight timeframe in which the public must respond, and the fact that it did not have any contact information for a response to be made to the Town.
The fact it came from the DSBN — the institution proposing the development of public land — also ruffled more than a few feathers.
Though the DSBN was not present for the meeting, the sheer magnitude of the gathering sent a message seemingly impossible for the school board to ignore — a community standing united against the renaming of a school and encroachment onto a public park.