Editorial: History teaches through names

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The issue: Erasing history 

We say: Move cautiously 

As parents of pre-school to Grade 5 students drop their children off at J.H. Sissons School, do they know who the place is named for?

Are they offended over the fact that the school bears the name of the Supreme Court justice who sentenced a gay man, Everett George Klippert, to jail for ‘gross indecency’ in 1965.

Sissons did nothing wrong. In fact, the first judge of the Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories was following the laws of the day.

The law that put Klippert in jail was unjust, but that doesn’t mean Sissons himself was acting unjustly. We expect judges to apply and follow the law and if they don’t, we’re in bigger trouble than we think.

It’s up to Parliament to change the law and for the public to bring pressure to bear if that’s what it takes to get lawmakers to change it. Despite being a respected jurist – as you will read in a letter to the editor today – Sissons’ legacy is now caught up in the international firestorm of controversy over whether history should be re-written or expunged to conform to society’s current conventions and sensitivities.

“If Yk1 (Yellowknife Education District No. 1) is willing to sit down and look at the name we are certainly
willing to look at it with them,” stated Chelsea Thacker, executive director of the Rainbow Coalition of Yellowknife, by email.

Although Thacker correctly notes there are much more pressing issues in Yellowknife affecting the LGBTQ+2 community, the possible renaming of the Yk school built in 1975 will certainly be talked about in the future.

Thacker’s position is reasonable.

What is needed in this often-loud and cantankerous debate are for cool heads to prevail, before heads are lopped off statues in the cover of darkness, as has happened in the United States. Whether it be a building, a street, or a park, there are many examples in the city and across the NWT of places and things named after historical figures who clearly were respected by society decades ago but time has largely erased the memory of them, leaving us with only the names.

In Yellowknife’s case, many of these names belonged to prospectors and geologists, part of an overall history that is fast disappearing in the rear-view mirror – one that recalls Yellowknife as a gold-mining town. William McDonald School is named after just such a person.

John Howard Sissons (inset) was the first judge of the NWT Territorial Court. It’s said he took “justice to every man’s door” by aircraft and dog sled, holding trials in remote communities. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent apology to the LGBTQ+2 community, Sissons’ sentencing of a gay man to prison in 1965 has raised questions over a city school bearing his name. NNSL photo.

The problem with scrapping old names is it risks robbing us of history and the jumping off point for delving into it. There has to be a pretty good reason to reverse decisions made in good faith by previous generations. History needs to be honoured and taught fairly, not be whitewashed and one-sided. Yellowknifer doesn’t believe having Sissons’ name on a school hinders the French immersion studies going on inside. But if a new school is built to replace the aging facility it doesn’t mean the name needs to remain.

Sissons’ legacy as a fair and compassionate pioneering lawyer and judge has been honoured since 1975. Perhaps that is enough.

Breathing LIFE into old ways of thinking

St. Patrick High School has a little LIFE.

A group called Lived Inclusion For Everyone was set up to create a safe space for LGBTQ2+ students and foster acceptance among the community. LIFE was formed by a group of like-minded students who came together in March 2015 to pitch their idea to the Yellowknife Catholic school board.

“It’s totally open to every student in the school and we always find that there are allies, friends, supporters,” said Lori Tutt, the school’s religion teacher and religious education coordinator for the Catholic school district.

“With the education and the advocacy … I think (the school has) become a safer and more inclusive space.”

Indeed it has. The issue of sexuality – heterosexual and homosexual – has always been controversial in Catholic schools. Including at St. Patrick High School. In 2009, Yellowknifer reported students were taught being homosexual is acceptable but a homosexual act was not.

“They are members of society and through no fault of their own and no decision of their own they have to live with something quite painful,” said then-Yellowknife Catholic Schools chaplain Brian Carter. “The physical act of homosexuality is not part of God’s plan.”

Yellowknifer applauds the folks behind LIFE and any other like-minded group that encourages inclusivity and acceptance.

The reason? It’s 2017.