Sir John A. Macdonald School name retired in favour of Wiikwemkoong water walker Josephine Biidaasige Mandamin

Water Walker the late Josephine Mandamin, left, with her great niece Anishinabek Nation Water Commissioner Autumn Peltier.

Durham District School Board makes the decision

PICKERING – On Monday, January 17, the Durham District School Board (DDSB)’s board of trustees voted to rename a Pickering based school Biidassige Mandamin Public School, in recognition of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory band member Josephine Mandamin who was an advocate for water protection and became known as the ‘Water Walker.’ The decision was based on a recommendation from the school naming committee which was formed to consider the renaming of this school from Sir John A. Macdonald. The committee was comprised of local trustees, staff, students, a member of the Indigenous Advisory circle and community members.

“The reason this amazing woman’s name was chosen is that she contributed a lot to education about how important water, clean water, is, and how important the environment is to everyone,” Carolyn Morton, chairperson of the DDSB and a trustee for the townships of Brock, Scugog and Uxbridge told The Expositor. She said trustees made the decision in response to community concerns about the school’s original name, noting Sir John A. Macdonald was instrumental in bringing about Confederation in 1867 but also presided over the starvation of Indigenous peoples on the Prairies, and introduced the residential school system with Indigenous children taken from their parents and forced to assimilate into white society.

“I think its awesome that we are changing the school name to recognize this amazing woman. She was an Indigenous leader and brought attention to the importance of water and preserving the water.”

“We are very pleased with the name change, and we consider this an opportunity to learn about our history, water and environment. That is what education is all about,” said Ms. Morton. She pointed out, “when we approached her family, they said they would like her Indigenous name used in the school name and that is why ‘Josephine’ will not be in the school name.”

“It is pretty cool that the school board is honouring my aunt like this,” stated Stephanie Peltier of Wiikwemkoong, of the name change. “They are honouring her for all the work she has done to promote water and environment. It is amazing because they are honouring her for her work in protecting water and awareness of how sacred and important water is. It is a step toward Truth and Reconciliation.”

“Water brings life, and we need water,” said Ms. Peltier. “My aunt did a lot of work towards promoting cultural awareness and how important water is. This is quite an honour for my aunt.” 

Ms. Peltier’s daughter, Autumn, could not be reached for comment prior to this week’s press deadline, but she is a renowned water rights advocate and a leading global youth environment activist. She was appointed Chief Water Commissioner by the Anishinabek Nation in 2019 and has said that she learned the importance of clean water and respecting the environment from her mother and great aunt Josephine Mandamin.

Glen Hare, Ontario regional chief was surprised to hear of the name change. “I didn’t know that,” he told The Expositor. “It’s awesome! Josephine made a difference in the environment. That is great news, and I hope that I’m invited to the ribbon cutting for the name change at the school.”

The school renaming process was initiated at a May 17, 2021 DDSB board meeting, where DDSB’s board of trustees passed a motion that one or more of the renaming criteria contained in section 5.4 for the naming of schools policy had been met and that a school naming committee would be established to consider a potential renaming in accordance with DDSB’s naming of schools procedure.

“Biidassige (Josephine) Mandamin was from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory. She was an Anishinaabe elder and world-renowned water advocate. She was a residential school survivor, having attended St. Joseph’s School for Girls in Spanish, Ontario, from 1948-1954. Despite her experience with the residential school, she maintained her Anishinaabe identify and followed her traditional teachings,” an DDSB release read.

“Biidassige dedicated her life to speaking for the Great Lakes and was an influential teacher and advocate for the Earth’s water. She walked around the Great Lakes from 2003 to 2017 to bring awareness to the problems of water pollution and environmental degradation on the Great Lakes and on Indigenous reserves in Canada,” the DDSB said. 

“For her activism, Ms. Mandamin was awarded the Anishinabek Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) and the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross (2018). Her great-niece, Autumn Peltier, followed in her great aunt’s footsteps, becoming the next generation’s ‘water warrior.’ The impact of her conservation and advocacy work will live on for future generations. Biidassige joined the spirit world on February 22, 2019.”

“The name change will take effect for the start of the 2022-23 school Year. The school will be working to update signage and branding to represent the legacy of our new namesake and the Indigenous Education Department will be supporting online learning,” DDSB said.