Urban Nation Vancouver Island

One town, two worlds: Reconciliation in Port Alberni

Wawmeesh Hamilton March 12, 2018

Port Alberni is a 70-minute drive west of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

The hardscrabble logging and mill town has a population of more than 20,000 people, and roughly 18 per cent of them are Indigenous. The town is cloaked by mountain ranges and the deep blue tidal water of the Somass River runs through the middle.

Local city councillor Chris Alemany knows the drive well. He commutes to and from his job as a computer technician at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo five days a week. In 2016, Alemany did a lot of thinking during those commutes. He was concerned after a friend and former classmate told him that his research for a school project into a former Alberni MP and city councillor revealed a dark past.

Alan Webster Neill’s career as an Alberni city councillor and member of Parliament spanned the two World Wars. He helped champion old age pension and establish Nov. 11 as Remembrance Day. But he also supported the Indian Residential School system as an Indian Agent, was pro-Japanese internment and opposed Asian immigration.

The more Alemany learned about Neill, the more unsettled he said he felt about Port Alberni’s Neill Street — named after him. Alemany said the next move was obvious: change the street name.

“If we were serious about the reconciliation process, [then] we were honouring someone that I strongly believed did not deserve that honour anymore,” Alemany said.

The idea didn’t go over well. When news of Alemany’s plan was leaked for a local radio station story, on social media people said things like, “these people need to get a life, and talk about real issues,” and “waste of time [and] taxpayers money! Move on to something more constructive!”

When the plan went to a vote, at council’s Jan. 23 meeting, Port Alberni resident Cameron Stefiuk argued against both renaming Neill Street and reconciliation. In a video recording of his council presentation, the gist of his argument is that bad history is still history.