An article in the Globe and Mail on Jan. 31 noted that at a meeting the night before, the Vancouver School Board voted unanimously to rename Lord Roberts Elementary School in the city’s West End.
The school, built in 1901, was named after Lord Frederick Roberts, who led the British forces during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in southern Africa. He was celebrated as one of the most successful military commanders of his time, and was awarded the Victoria Cross, but in the 120 or so years since the Boer War his reputation has taken a bit of a beating.
Among the strategies that “Bobs” (as he was affectionately known by the British public) put into action during the Boer War were concentration camps, which lacked space, food, sanitation, medicine, and medical care, and in which 26,370 Boer women and children died. That so many Boers were in the concentration camps was a result of Roberts’ policy of burning farms to force the families out of them. He also authorized the army’s use of civilian hostages for the protection of trains from Boer guerilla units.
Roberts returned to England to a hero’s welcome and a series of honours, including an elevation to the peerage; the naming of a school in faraway Canada was probably among the least of them. No less a person than Rudyard Kipling wrote a laudatory poem about him, called “Bobs” (sample lines: “This ain’t no bloomin’ ode / But you’ve ’elped the soldier’s load / An’ for benefits bestowed / Bless yer, Bobs!”).
It’s safe to say that there weren’t a lot of South Africans blessing Bobs back in 1901, and the Vancouver School Board has, some 120 years later, come around to their way of thinking. Said school trustee Lois Chan-Pedley on Jan. 30, “the evidence is clear that it is time to give the school a new name.”
I can already hear the screams of “cancel culture!” and “woke!” from incensed people. No one is “cancelling” Roberts, who was a real person who really existed and whose biography is (and will remain) readily accessible for anyone who wants to learn more about him.
(Also, can we please, please stop using “woke” as a pejorative anytime anyone suggests that something or someone might be offensive? It seems to have replaced, or at least become synonymous with, “political correctness” as a term of scorn, which baffles me. Anytime I see “woke” or “politically correct” used, it’s almost always in a situation where someone is trying to avoid hurting the feelings of, or insulting, another person or group of people. We don’t call people with Down Syndrome “mongoloids” anymore, because the term was painful and extremely offensive to people with Down Syndrome. It’s not being “woke”, or “politically correct”, it’s being a decent human being who thinks of others and tries to spare them pain.)
But back to Bobs. The Vancouver School Board has made the eminently sensible decision that they would rather not have one of their schools named after a man who thought that concentration camps were just the ticket, in a largely-forgotten war fought more than a century ago by soldiers who were thousands of miles from their home country and probably would have had a hard time telling you why they were there in the first place. And before anyone yells “Librul leftie politicians!” at the school board, it should be noted that the school’s parent advisory council has been asking for the name to be changed since 2019, after they explored Roberts’ background and prepared a detailed biography of him.
Anyone getting riled up about this, or a similar, matter might be better advised to stop clutching their pearls and instead use their time and energy to volunteer at a local food bank, or help out with a literacy program, or do something — anything — for the good of people who are suffering today, not waste time and energy fighting on behalf of Bobs. Besides, he’d probably prefer the poem as a tribute; we can leave him with that.