School in northern Manitoba to change name due to residential school connection

The sign at Oscar Blackburn School is removed on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. Frontier School division announce plans to remove the sign from the school and change the name due to Blackburn's connection to the residential school system. (Photo source: Elias Spence Sr.)

A school division in northern Manitoba will be changing the name of a school due to the namesake’s connection to the residential school system.

The Frontier School Division confirmed it is renaming Oscar Blackburn School, located in South Indian Lake, Man. A letter was sent home to parents in the community.

Superintendent Reg Klassen said the signage at the school was taken down Tuesday, and the school division will remove the name Oscar Blackburn from letterhead, all signage and team jerseys.

“It was discovered that Oscar Blackburn, who was a well-liked teacher, in his later duties as general merchant of the community helped gather up the First Nation children to send them off to residential school,” Klassen said in an email.

Chief Shirley Ducharme of the O Pipon-Na-piwin Cree Nation, said a member of the community came across a letter from Blackburn in the days following the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

“On that letter, it stated he was part of the residential school movement, where he was with the federal agency, and was part of gathering and getting students out to the residential schools,” she said.

According to Ducharme and the Manitoba Historical Society, Blackburn was the first school teacher in South Indian Lake. He passed away in Stonewall in 2007.

Several communities across Canada have called for name changes to buildings whose namesakes are linked to residential schools.

In Winnipeg, calls have been made to rename Bishop Grandin Boulevard and greenway due to Bishop Vital Justin Grandin’s support of the residential school system.

Ducharme said the letter listed the names of community members, and notes there are still residential school survivors living in the community. The news of the grave in Kamloops, along with the revelation of the letter, is triggering to members of the community.

“It was very shocking news to all of us,” she said.

Klassen said the request came from the chief and council in the community.

“This is an extremely painful realization for the community and in light of the horrendous discovery at Kamloops, it is even more raw and emotional,” he wrote. “When I spoke to the Chief yesterday, she was in tears.”

Klassen said the community, chief and councillors will choose a new name for the school, but says healing needs to occur first, as many in the community have first-hand memories of Blackburn.