A northern First Nation school formerly named after someone who played a role in the residential school system has a new name.
The Thunderbird school is a nursery to Grade 10 school, located in O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, a community of just over 1,000 people at South Indian Lake.
It was formerly known as the Oscar Blackburn School, named after the first teacher in the community, who also ran a local store.
The name change was initiated after the discovery of a letter from Blackburn, dating back to 1960, which shows he was involved in sending First Nations children to residential school.
“We decided to move forward and take the name down, and then after that … the superintendent of Frontier School Division was also informed about this,” said Chief Shirley Ducharme.
“They said they would support the decision of the community.”
Reg Klassen, superintendent of Frontier School Division, spoke to Ducharme shortly after the sign was removed.
“She said the sign is now being cut up into small pieces and residential school survivors or people who are relatives … are going to be able to throw a piece of that sign into [a] fire … and so that’s what they did,” said Klassen.
Temporary name becomes permanent
The community temporarily changed the name to the Thunderbird School, and asked for recommendations on a new name from community members.
“I think there was about maybe close to 20 or even more than 20 names suggested … the whole community was involved in this,” said Ducharme.
The majority of the votes went to the temporary name: Thunderbird School.
“I think there’s great power in that [name] … the powerful bird, represented by our students through to Grade 10,” said Ducharme.
On Sept. 29 — the day before the inaugural National Day of Truth and Reconciliation — the new name was revealed. Representatives from Frontier School Division and MKO Grand Chief Garrison Settee attended.
“At that ceremony, we did honour our residential school survivors, it was quite an emotional day,” said Ducharme.
“The survivors were there, present survivors from our community, and some family members that represented the ones that passed on … they were sitting there with tears rolling down their faces.”
For Klassen, the new name speaks for the strength of the community.
“It’s a powerful name, it’s representative of the resilience and the strength of the school community and [is] a symbol of reconciliation,” he said.
“The school was gifted a star blanket from chief and council, which has the colours of the thunderbird, and during the gifting two eagles soared in the sky — pretty phenomenal symbolism and a good sign.”
Klassen said the sign that was hung up is temporary, and the division is in the process of making a permanent sign for the school.