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Burnaby high school pushes to drop former Indian agent’s name

Byrne Creek Community School was named after a creek, but that creek was named after a former Indian agent, so students and staff are calling for change in the name of Truth and Reconciliation.

A longstanding practice of naming schools after places instead of people didn’t keep the historical taint out of one Burnaby high school's name – but that is set to change, according to the current school board chair.

In January, the board got a letter from Byrne Creek Community School asking for a name change, board chair Bill Brassington said at a meeting Monday.

The letter, signed by the school principal, staff committee chair, community council chair and the student government co-presidents, noted the school was named after a nearby creek, but that that creek had been named after Peter Byrne, a former Burnaby reeve who worked as the region's Indian agent for 10 years.

The Indian agent, a post that came with an above-average salary and was considered a "valuable patronage position," was the Crown's representative on First Nation reserves from the 1830s to the 1960s.

Indian agents were charged with controlling Indigenous people's lives, including making sure their kids attended reserve or residential schools.

peter-byrne
Peter Byrne, a former Burnaby reeve, who served 10 years as the region's Indian agent, is pictured in a 1890 photograph. City of Burnaby Archives 316-011

It was a former Indian agent, Hayter Reed, who – after being promoted to the post of deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs – created the pass system.

Under that system, Indigenous people weren't allowed to leave their reserve unless they had a pass authorized by an Indian agent.

Punishment for being caught without one could include imprisonment.

"Students and staff identify the school name change as being crucial towards truth and reconciliation and a necessary step to make all of our school community feel acknowledged, safe and cared for," Brassington said of the request to get the former Indian agent’s name out of Byrne Creek's moniker.

The board responded to the school’s request in February, according to Brassington, and has since reached out to local First Nations – Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh and Kwikwetlem.

"We’re asking to have a dialogue and a conversation around many things but predominantly ... our strategic plan and naming of schools," he said.

Brassington said Byrne Creek wouldn't get an Indigenous name unless that decision was supported by the First Nations.

But whether or not Byrne Creek would be renamed was not a question in Brassington's mind.

"It's going to happen. It's just a matter of how it's going to happen," he told the NOW.

Brassington said the board is also in discussions with the city about changing the name of the stream, Byrne Creek Drive and Byrne Creek Ravine Park.

When asked about how long it might take to get the high school's name changed, Brassington said he couldn't provide a timeline but said he'd like to see "movement" on the change while the students who wrote the letter are still at the school.

'Geographic and historic significance'

Byrne Creek Community School, which opened in 2005, is Burnaby's newest secondary school serving grades 8 to 12.

During planning and construction, it was referred to simply as the southeast secondary.

Its official name was announced in November 2004.

"Trustees appreciate both the geographic and historic significance of the name," then-board chair Mondee Redman said in 2004. "It's in keeping with our tradition of giving our schools a name with a geographic connection, and it has a historic link to our city."

Redman said local residents and prospective students submitted name ideas, which were then narrowed down through a community consultation.

She noted the creek's location near the school, and the fact students in the area had been involved in stream rehabilitation projects there for several years.

"It wasn't easy narrowing down a wide range of interesting choices, but we are pleased with the result," Redman said.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
Email cnaylor@burnabynow.com