The York Region District School Board (YRDSB) has formally renamed Vaughan Secondary School in honour of Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh after a strong push from community advocates.
“If she was here with us today, (she) would say that she wants all of us to continue to follow our dreams, our passions, that we are here in this life to live life to the fullest,” Sahra Nalayeh, Hodan’s sister, said alongside her father during a virtual portrait unveiling Tuesday evening.
“Whatever you love, whatever you’re passionate about, please do it with lots of love.”
The renaming comes almost two years after Hodan, who used to live in Vaughan and in Toronto, her husband, and 24 others were killed by members of al Shabaab, a militant Islamist group. The group members detonated a car bomb at the hotel she was staying in July 2019 in the port city of Kismayo. Fifty-six others were injured during the attack.
Hodan, a champion of women’s rights, moved to Somalia after living in Canada with hopes of sharing stories about her home country.
It also came after trustees voted unanimously in 2020 to strip the word “Vaughan” from the school after consultations with the community.
According to a report presented to trustees in September by director of education Louise Sirisko, she outlined the history of Benjamin Vaughan. She said the school was named after the city, which derives its name from the British parliamentarian.
The report noted Vaughan owned enslaved Africans in Jamaica and was adamantly opposed to the abolition of slavery.
“Mr. Vaughan, who was born in Jamaica of British and Anglo-American parents, explained that from his personal experience, ending the system of slavery in Jamaica would mean the end of civilization in that country. Mr. Vaughan believed that enslavement was good for Africans,” it said.
“There is no question that the Black students living in the City of Vaughan and attending Vaughan Secondary School are or will become aware of the true history of Benjamin Vaughan, and this history will affect their sense of belonging and well-being.
“It is argued that Benjamin Vaughan needs to be remembered as having a legacy of anti-Blackness and not as a diplomat and parliamentarian. The renaming of the school is a way for the board to demonstrate its commitment to racial justice in general and to eliminating anti-Black racism in particular.”
A community-wide survey was sent to community members and alumni on the future school name was subsequently held and Hodan’s name was the front-runner. However, a trustee questioned the survey’s findings in a statement issued earlier in 2021, claiming a large number of responses came from outside of York Region. That statement prompted accusations of racism. Ultimately, a town hall was held in February and Hodan’s name was later approved for the school.
Meanwhile, in an announcement ahead of Wednesday’s ceremony, YRDSB chair Cynthia Cordova raised members of the Black community for advocating for the change.
“The new name will better reflect the identities, accomplishments and aspirations of our students at Hodan Nalayeh Secondary School,” she said in the statement.
— With files from Miranda Anthistle and Erica Vella
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