Screenshot of a Street View image showing a low-slung brick school set behind a parking lot.
Robin Foote Elementary, as seen on Google Street View in 2015. (The sign with the school name has changed slightly since then.)

“I’m not from the area. I know it’s somebody local, and I’ve only been at the school three full years.”

“I’ve never really thought about it or questioned it.”

“I believe he was a resident of the area, and I believe the school was named after him. Our VP, who is not here today — her mother taught here for years and years and years. I’m sure she would know.”

Those were the answers I got from three school employees when I called to ask who their schools were named after.

About 15% of Nova Scotia’s 370 public schools are named after people. Earlier this year, when the Halifax Regional Centre for Education announced that Sir John A. Macdonald High School in Upper Tantallon would be renamed Bay View High School, I decided to find out who some of those people were.

Most schools in the province — by my count, more than three-quarters — are named after a location. They may bear the name of the local municipality, a neighbourhood, a street, or a larger geographical area. For example, Digby Elementary School, St. Mary’s Bay Academy, and Spring Street Academy, which is conveniently located at the corner of Spring Street and Academy Street in Amherst. Some are more loosely location based such as Bay View, Ocean View, and Winding River.

Some schools are indirectly named after people, because of street names. Inglis Street Elementary is clearly named after the street, and not Bishop Charles Inglis, for instance.

In a 2017 BuzzFeed article, Ishmael N. Daro compiled a list of all the schools in Canada named after Sir John A. Macdonald. It didn’t take a lot of compiling. There were only 13 —and that’s including a school called Macdonald-Cartier and one named Laurier Macdonald.)

In Nova Scotia, I was surprised to learn, vanishingly few schools are named after major contemporary or historical figures.

There’s Joseph Howe, of course, a couple of prime ministers (Sir Charles Tupper and Sir Robert Borden) a smattering of industrialists (Cyrus Eaton Elementary, Shatford Memorial Elementary, Cunard Junior High, John W. MacLeod-Fleming Tower Elementary), and a few other titled folks (Governor General Georges Vanier, the Duc d’Anville, and, uh, Prince Andrew, whose name is unlikely to grace the high school in Dartmouth much longer).

And at least one school, Michael Wallace Elementary, in Dartmouth, appears to have been named after a slaveowner.

But overall, very few Nova Scotia schools are named for people of the rich or famous variety. Instead, you’re much more likely to find the names of local doctors and priests, school administrators, local or provincial politicians, war heroes, and an array of local landowners, trailblazers, artisans, and people who became community fixtures. They include a beloved caretaker, a teen hockey player fatally injured on the ice, and a blacksmith turned city councillor.

Take one of my favourites, Ash Lee Jefferson, in Fall River. It bears the names of three Black women from the community. The school website explains that Martha Ash (1897-1963) “shared the beauty of her property and flower gardens with the entire community” and “was widely recognized as the community counsellor for those needing support

Ada Lee (1875-1946) was the daughter of Fall River’s first Black settlers and “served tirelessly for years as Fall River’s midwife and nurse. She had an “open door” to anyone in need and donated the land upon which Ash Lee Jefferson was built.” And Selena Jefferson (1872-1964) “taught for nearly 65 years and was one of the first teachers in North Preston.” Her community service included “maintaining vegetable gardens, chickens, and a butter supply for anyone needing food.” All three donated land on which schools now stand.

It’s been several years since I last visited the school, but I recall a display near the entrance with images and biographies of the three women.

Old black-and-white photo of a young white man in a military uniform.
Leslie Thomas. Photo: HRCE

Not far away, in Sackville, Leslie Thomas Junior High is named after a young RCAF sergeant from the area. Interestingly, the school was named after him in 1975, 32 years after he died. Here, in part, is what the school website says about him:

When Leslie was 16, he spent the better part of the year in a body cast to straighten a curvature in his spine. Despite this setback, Thomas was a well-liked student who enjoyed life and loved to ski.

Leslie joined the Air Force in June 1941. He was stationed in Yarmouth in July of 1942 and was assigned to #113 Bomber Recon after completing courses in St. Thomas, Ontario and Jarvis, Ontario. Six months later, while on a training mission, the plane that Thomas and four others were on developed engine trouble. The pilot struggled to bring the aircraft, a Hudson #BW 447, back to base, but crashed on landing. All five men died in the fire following the crash. Thomas was 21 and a half years old

Serious-looking white teenager looking into the camera. It appears that he may be on a sailboat.
Eric Graves. Photo: HRCE

Another young man with a school named after him is Eric Graves. Eric Graves Memorial Junior High in Dartmouth bears his name. From the school website:

Eric was an outstanding student. He was successful in both academic and athletic endeavours. At the time of his death on April 21, 1968, Eric was playing hockey for Shearwater in an exhibition game held in Oromocto, NB. The team was playing against Newcastle. He was fatally injured during the game and died at the young age of 16. At the time of his death, he was a grade 10 student at Prince Andrew High School.

Burton Ettinger Elementary in Fairview is named for a longtime caretaker and A.J. Smeltzer School in Sackville after a blacksmith whose “skill in making decorative ironwork can be seen in the iron rail at St. John’s Church here in Lower Sackville,” according to the school website. (Smeltzer was also a justice of the peace, city councillor, and school trustee, and helped form the local volunteer fire department.)

Formal portrait in oil paint of a woman in academic robes.
Elizabeth Sutherland, who taught at the first public school in Spryfield, opened in the 1850s.

Very, very few schools are named for women. In addition to Ash Lee Jefferson, there’s Madeline Symonds Middle School in Hammonds Plains, Elizabeth Sutherland School in Spryfield, and Evelyn Richardson Memorial Elementary School in Shag Harbour. Symonds was the first Black Nova Scotian to graduate from the Truro Normal School — aka teacher’s college — graduating in 1928. Sutherland taught in the first public school to open in Spryfield, in the 1850s. Richardson, meanwhile, was the author of the classic memoir We Keep a Light, which won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction.

Not all the stories behind school names are easy to come by. Sometimes there is a plaque or portrait in the school — so at least those who visit the building can be aware of who it’s named after.

For instance, Ian Forsyth school in Dartmouth has a plaque from the Dartmouth Historical Society (dated 2005) about the school’s namesake: “Teacher, Principal, Supervisor, and Superintendent of Dartmouth Schools 1925-65.” It notes that after the Halifax Explosion, he “borrowed a neighbour’s horse and wagon and drove downtown to help transport the injured to the Nova Scotia Hospital for treatment.” He also “introduced to the school curriculum: music, physical education, industrial arts, home economics, and classes for children with learning disabilities.”

Black and white studio photo of a Black man in formal morning coat, white gloves, sash, and top hat.
Nelson Whynder, who donated the land on which Nelson Whynder Elementary School in North Preston stands.

Nelson Whynder (1864-1939) donated the land for the first school in North Preston. The current Nelson Whynder Elementary, built in 1960, is the third school to be built on the property. A plaque in the school commemorates him.

Photo of a plaque featuring a picture of a smiling man in a suit and text below.
Dr. John Hugh Gillis, for whom the regional high school in Antigonish is named.

A plaque at Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School in Antigonish shows a man with a slightly rakish smile and a carnation in his lapel. It says that Gillis, the supervisor of town schools for Antigonish (he had a PhD in education) “was an ever-present advocate for education and believed one had to do everything in their power to help a student. Dr. Gillis suffered a severe stroke at age 45, and lived for another 27 years before passing away in 2007.” Someone I know who attended the school in the 2010s told me everyone just called it “Regional” and he’d never really thought about who it was named after.

Even though it closed in 2012, I got curious about Rev H.J. MacDonald School in Heatherton, Antigonish County. I wasn’t able to find any information on MacDonald himself, because all my searches turned up information related to the school. Archivist John A. MacLeod of the Nova Scotia Archives came to the rescue, sending me MacDonald’s obituary from a February 1966 edition of the Antigonish Casket (“Fr. Hugh John dies after many years in priesthood.”) MacDonald and Moses Coady, the father of the Antigonish Movement promoting co-operatives, were ordained together in Rome in 1910, and MacDonald was a strong supporter of the movement himself. Paul Armstrong of the Maritime Institute for Civil Society also emailed to let me know that MacDonald was a vice-rector at St F.X, a parish priest in Heatherton for 40 years, and that “he also campaigned to bring electricity to Heatherton, and was successful in a do-it-yourself project to get it installed in the 1930s.”

Tompkins Memorial in Reserve Mines is named after another great of the Antigonish Movement — Father Jimmy Tompkins. But when I called the school (which is simply called Tompkins Memorial Elementary) the person who answered couldn’t tell me who it was named after. She said she assumed it was Father Jimmy Tompkins, but wasn’t sure. Principal Mary McLeod called me back to confirm, and said she thinks there used to be a plaque in the school, but there isn’t anymore.

Smiling youngish white woman in glasses, looking straight into the camera. She is outdoors on what looks like a bright fall day.
Dalhousie University doctoral student Hannah Main. Photo:

Hannah Main is a doctoral student in sociology at Dalhousie, studying rural school closures. Her research focuses on two specific schools and communities — Maitland and Petite Rivière — but she’s spent a lot of time thinking about the roles of rural schools generally.

“Is the school name holding something about the community? Something that’s meaningful to the community and isn’t easily found anywhere?” she asked. “There are some of these people in Nova Scotia who are giants in history, but you may not hear about them since they are local.”

She added: “The other thing I was thinking about is when rural schools close, they’re often the last thing besides maybe the post office to go. In Maitland it was the gas station, the bank, then it was the churches, and then it was the school. The churches and businesses may also have people in them who are holding these local stories or institutional knowledge that’s so important in local communities. As they drop off, there become fewer and fewer of these institutions that hold the local knowledge — and that’s part of why it’s so devastating for people to lose a school in a rural community, especially if it’s part of a pattern.”

Main said she was struck by the presence of history while touring the closed Maitland school. She said it’s “eerie” how the abandoned classrooms still look like classrooms. And then “the man giving me the tour goes, ‘Oh, your grandmother used to teach in this classroom.’ Generations of people lived their lives in these communities, and we want it to have meaning.”

John A. Macdonald may no longer have a school named after him, but it’s not like anybody is going to forget who he is. But what about the people schools in smaller communities are named for? How effective is it to memorialize them in this way when sometimes even the people working in the schools don’t know who they were?

Gertrude Parker Elementary in Sackville was named after a woman born in affluent Westmount — the one in Montreal — who moved around with her husband before settling in Sackville in 1946, where she became the town switchboard operator. A brochure from the Fultz House Museum says:

Early in the year 1946, Mrs. Parker took over the telephone switchboard from a Mrs. Daisy Weir. She operated an old magneto type switchboard with a crank for the Maritime Telephone and Telegraph Company. She received a salary of thirteen dollars a month to provide a service from Bedford to the Hants County line, including Beaver Bank and Lucasville. The switchboard was kept open twenty-four hours a day. Gertrude often handled the overnight calls, charging twenty-five cents to anyone making one then. When she took over the Sackville Telephone Exchange it had less than fifty members. By the time she finished in 1963, Mrs. Parker had around three hundred lines to look after. She held her position with the telephone company until the dial phone system was introduced in 1963.

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald once wrote an article on Parker, stating: “Until the dial system was introduced in 1963, Mrs. Gertrude Parker was the telephone operator, the brains, the human component, through which every call in the area had to funnel. She was as far removed from the computerized dial system, or the nasal recording, as the human heart is removed from the robot.”

Gertrude Parker Elementary is no more. The building is now the CSAP school École du Grand-Portage. Do we lose something by not having a school named after Parker anymore?

Interestingly, all CSAP schools have an “historique” tab on their websites, explaining the history of the school and, in most cases its name. There is no similar consistency for English-language public schools. More often than not the “About our school” tabs on their websites provide information on allergies, schedules, parent-teacher conferences, policies, and so on.

The old Burton Ettinger Ednet website had information on the man the school was named for, but the current site does not. (HRCE introduced a new school website template in 2015 and had transitioned all schools to it by the start of the 2018-2019 school year, HRCE spokesperson Doug Hadley told me.)

There are those who argue we should stop naming anything after people. It’s too complicated. As I wrote in the April 1 morning file, when it came to suggestions for renaming Sir John A. Macdonald:

By far the most popular suggestion — 140 of the 460 responses — was to name the school after Jadon Robinson, a 17-year-old student and football player who died in a car crash in 2015.

But the renaming committee, which had not set criteria before soliciting names, decided against the most popular option in part because ” we believe that no one person could encompass all our school’s diversity.”

The HRCE naming policy does allow for schools to be named after people, but notes:

In the event a person’s name is forwarded, the Governing Board will request the Superintendent provide a report that will vet this name.

Avoiding the names of individuals doesn’t necessarily solve the problem either. Take the case of the recently renamed Tallahassee Community School.

It was not named for the Florida capital, but for a Confederate warship on a spree that saw it sink or seize “more than 30 unarmed merchant vessels and fishing boats off the New England coast,” Dean Jobb wrote in the National Post in 2014. He added:

It has been 150 years since Tallahassee’s 36-hour sojourn in Halifax. While the visit was brief, it has become part of the city’s folklore. The story of the raider’s daring escape from the Union gunboats sent in pursuit has been told and retold. Halifax journalist Andrew Merkel published a ballad immortalizing the tale in the 1940s, and an elementary school in the harbourside community of Eastern Passage bears the ship’s name.

The decision to rename the school, according to the renaming committee report, came because, “In the spring of 2020, a concern was brought to our attention that the origins of our school name, Tallahassee, has connections to slavery and anti-Black racism, as it was named after a Confederate States Ship from the American Civil War.”

The report notes that the name of the school was not intended to show support for the Confederate cause, but that ultimately that’s not relevant:

We understand and appreciate the intended reference in naming our school Tallahassee, in commemoration of a historical nautical feat that took place just outside the windows of our school, in the early morning hours of August 20th, 1864.

We understand that the original intended use of the name Tallahassee, the ship that was skillfully guided through the “Eastern Passage,” was aimed to celebrate the skill and success of legendary harbour pilot, John “Jock” Flemming, and the role he played in the legacy of Eastern Passage…

We kept our minds open and did our best to empathize with those who, without additional context as to why the name was chosen, would take the name at face value for the legacy of the Tallahassee, as a Confederate ship during the Civil War.

One thing jumps out at me here: the process was initiated by “a concern” brought to the school’s attention. Does this mean the school did not know about the vessel? Or that they did, but didn’t think much of it until the issue was raised?

As high school teacher Ben Sichel wrote in a 2014 blog post:

The names we use on public works to decide which figures in our history are worthy of honour tells us much about our values.

But if that’s the case — and I think it is — we need to do a better job of keeping alive the memories of those we are honouring.

I still don’t know who Robin Foote Elementary in Sydney is named after, or Malcolm Munroe Middle School in Sydney River. In an email, Robin Foote secretary Sherrie Campbell told me, “There is some speculation among staff on how the name originated,” but nobody at the school knew for sure.

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. Inglis Street Elementary has already been renamed at least once, sometime in the 2000s? It was formerly called St. Francis Elementary School.

    1. I think that name change happened when St Francis and Tower Rd schools merged.

      Many of the school names in Nova Scotia came from their original incarnations as parochial schools. In Halifax, some of those original parochial names like St Francis and St Pius X (now Fairview Annex) disappeared, some names were combined with others when schools merged (for example St Joseph’s-Alexander McKay, and LeMarchant-St. Thomas) and some names still exist in their original form (like St Catherine’s, St Mary’s, and St Agnes.)

      1. I considered getting into the parochial names, but the story was in danger of getting out of hand.

  2. Eric Graves was my neighbourhood junior high. The family lived just down the street from the school – I think they are still there. It was one of the first (maybe the first?) school built with accessibility in mind, with a wheelchair accessible ramp going from the ground floor to the second. I had always understood it was designed this way purposely because of the accident Eric had suffered.

  3. As someone who was on the school board and its policy committee when the most recent version of the school naming policy was created, I remember the discussion about allowing schools to be named for people as being very contentious. I think the experience of renaming Cornwallis Junior High to Halifax Central Junior High (which happened before my time on the board) was a big factor in shaping opinions.

    My children both went to Burton Ettinger school – I loved the idea that they went to a school named after a person known for their kindness to children, I think there is something beautiful in that and that children benefit from having that kind of person celebrated.

    I hope there is a middle ground where we can abandon names that have negative associations but still celebrate people who from our communities who are inspirational. There are only so many synonyms for overlooking the water that we can use as names before they start to get confusing ;-p

  4. Wish the author had written about Sidney Stephen High School in Bedford. Only a high school for 12 years it was converted to a junior high for the growing population of Bedford and then the name was discarded. Most of the alumnae of SSHS were very upset at this. It is after all our heritage that was stolen from us. The school still stands and no longer is named after the distinguished gentleman who did so much to get a high school for Bedford and promote education in the area. Feel free to attend the monthly luncheon that the alumnae attend and ask how they feel. You might even meet the grandson of the founder.

  5. AFAIK the name Foote is a common name in Newfoundland and there were many Newfoundlanders who lived in Cape Breton.