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Totems to Thunderbirds: Semiahmoo Secondary changes team name in reconciliation


The temporary logo for the Semiahmoo Thunderbirds. A new logo is being designed that will be agreed upon by the Semiahmoo First Nation and Semiahmoo Secondary.

Semiahmoo Secondary is no longer home of the Totems as the school has officially changed its team name to the Thunderbirds as part of ongoing reconciliation efforts with the Semiahmoo First Nation.

The change was motivated by a desire to accurately and respectfully recognize the Semiahmoo First Nation through continued discussions with Chief Harley Chappell and other members. Over the last few years, the school has worked with the Semiahmoo First Nation to rebuild their relationship and better represent their traditions and culture.

"In talking with various people and engaging with Chief Chappell, we saw an opportunity to strengthen our connection with Semiahmoo First Nation and honour the people we're named after," said Semiahmoo Secondary vice-principal Robert Dewinetz. "Something that came up in a conversation with Councillor Joanne Charles is that 'totems' is not an appropriate name for a school that is on Coast Salish lands, and so we started talking about what name would reflect the culture and the land, and that's how we landed on Thunderbirds."

"The Semiahmoo and other Coast Salish First Nations didn't create totem poles or house posts, they had welcome figures to welcome people to the territory," said Lyn Daniels, director of instruction with the district's Aboriginal Learning department. "The Semiahmoo Totems is a misunderstanding of who the Semiahmoo people are and what could represent them."

Through a dialogue between Chief Chappell and staff on the school's Aboriginal Team, Dewinetz said the more culturally accurate Thunderbirds was chosen with the endorsement of the SFN Band Council, noting the creature is part of Coast Salish traditions.

"The name change was slowed by the pandemic, but this period became an unexpected window of opportunity that enabled further cultural instruction from the Semiahmoo First Nation, resulting in the creation of a Reconciliation Plan between the First Nation and the school," said former Semiahmoo Secondary vice-principal Derek Strauss. "We are honoured to be working with the Semiahmoo First Nation to weave together the culture of our school with that of our Indigenous neighbours."

Daniels said sports team names have a history of misrepresenting Indigenous culture, and changing the Totems to a name that better reflects the Semiahmoo First Nation's history and culture is one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada's Calls to Action.

"This has been a longstanding issue, that sports organizations take imagery from Indigenous cultures and use it disrespectfully in ways that are not aligned," she said. "It takes some courage to say, 'We made a mistake, but now we want to do better, we want to be more respectful, and as part of our reconciliation, we're changing the name.' And that's really important."

As for their working relationship, Dewinetz said the school is proud of its work to reconnect with the Semiahmoo First Nation and that they will continue to discuss together how to make further progress moving forward toward reconciliation.

"In terms of bridge building, the fact that a dialogue is actually occurring when it hasn't happened for awhile is huge," he said. "We're building a relationship that wasn't there years ago. This is an important step that our school is taking towards reconciliation."

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