The Cultural School in the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division will now be named after a beloved Carlton Comprehensive High School teacher who died from COVID-19 in April 2021.
As of Monday, Won Ska Cultural School is now officially known as Victor Thunderchild Public High School following a re-naming ceremony on Monday. The change comes from work the Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Elder’s Advisory Council and the Board of Education did to revitalise the school as a first-choice high school that offers a full high school program rooted in an Indigenous model of education.
Vi Thunderchild, Victor’s wife, said the renaming was an honour for his family and his home community of Thunderchild First Nation.
“It’s a really big deal for the family because of how hard it’s been for Indigenous people, and for Victor, to get this acknowledgment for all the what he’s gone through,” Vi said. “This is quite the legacy and I’m overwhelmed. It’s an honour (and) it’s sad too because he’s not here, but he earned this.”
In her speech, Vi said that Victor had opportunities to leave Carlton, but chose to remain because he wanted to be a role model for Indigenous youth.
“He could have gone to a reserve and made more money, but he chose to be at Carlton, which had a population of 1,700 kids and was one of the largest in Saskatchewan,” Vi remembered. “He knew that’s where he could make the biggest impact, and trust me, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy for him to be Native.
“It wasn’t easy for him. I mean, he got questioned all the time about his credentials.”
During her speech, Vi noted that Victor wore a suit to give himself an air of professionalism. At the time, there were few Indigenous people working in the public education system, Vi said, and the ones who did worked extra hard to get there.
“He needed to stand out because he needed to look professional,” she said.
“You have to. (It’s) five times harder to prove yourself when you’re Native and that’s the truth, that’s the reality.”
Victor’s family gave their approval to the renaming after being approached by two members of the school division’s Elder’s Council.
Sask Rivers board chair Darlene Rowden officially announced the new name on Monday.
“It is with great honour and a deep sense of purpose that I share with you our decision to rename the cultural school from Won Ska to Victor Thunderchild Public High School,” Rowden said to raucous applause from the crowd.
“Renaming a school is a profound undertaking as it symbolizes our commitment to honour an individual who has left a lasting mark on our lives, our educational institutions and our broader community. In this case it is about celebrating the life and legacy of a remarkable individual, Victor Thunderchild,” she added.
Last spring, a naming committee forwarded a list of five potential names to the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division’s board of trustees for approval. Victor Thunderchild Public High School was at the top of the list to replace the school’s former name, Won Ska Cultural School.
Rowden said in an interview after the ceremony that the board was quick to agree after the committee made their choice.
“No, it really wasn’t (a hard decision),” she said. “There was a committee, the board was not a part of it but it was a good committee of community members, staff members, people that should be on that committee. When they brought us their recommendations, I think that there was three or four of them. Their number one was the Victor Thunderchild Public High School and I mean, there was no question We affirmed their first choice because it would have been our first choice.”
The naming committee included three students, an elder, the school community council chairperson and the school division high school learning consultant. Students made a pin with the new logo of the school for the family.
“We respect the committee’s work and take that under serious advisement, but it was their first choice was an easy first choice for us,” Rowden added.
Victor’s family, including Vi, his daughters, mother and other family members, attended the renaming ceremony, which took place on the school grounds under a tent due to the rain. Viktor’s grandson, Victor Thunderchild III, was in the audience. A member of Victor’s family also spoke to the crowd after the formal ceremony came to an end.
Rowden was happy to have family present.
“There was a lot of them here. I think they’re all very pleased and very honoured. not half as honoured as we are that they were on board with with this naming.”
The Elder’s Council was a large part of the process of renaming and is doing meaningful work in Indigenous Culture and work in the division, according to Rowden.
“They are key in sparking ideas and helping us follow through in a good way, in proper ways,” she said.
Also present were students, school staff, Victor’s friends and family, school division officials and community members.
Elder Liz Settee did the opening prayer. Elder Pearl Morin did the closing prayer and blessed the meal of bannock and stew.
Principal Gina Sinoski acted as emcee for the event.
Trustee and Vice Chair Alan Nunn outlined the history of Won Ska, the Cree word for “wake up”. The school began in 1993 in the former Kinsmen School, which became the Won Ska Community Centre. In 2013 it became part of the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division. The school offered a more structured program but offered outreach programming as well.
Former Won Ska Principals were Dawn Kilmer, Ian MacDougall, Ron Bentley and current principal Sinoski.
Next year the school will add Grade 9 and expand to be a true High School while still maintaining its original mission as a cultural school.
The Prairie Thunder Drum Group played the Treaty 6 song, the Metis National Anthem was played and the Grade 3 students from the Cree Language program at John Diefenbaker School sang “O Canada” in Cree.
Prairie Thunder played an Honour Song to acknowledge the naming. Three students spoke to their pledge moving forward honouring Victor’ legacy.
Vi received a blanket from Sinoski and the students, Sinoski also received a blanket from Settee and trustee Grant Gustafson to be displayed in the school.
Knowledge Keeper Mike Relland shared the history of naming in Indigenous culture.
“Victor Thunderchild recognized students’ potential and knew that empowering the next generation was fundamental to achieving the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action,” principal Gina Sinoski said in a release.
“He served as a role model for students and as a powerful influence that inspired students to take pride in themselves and their culture, which is a fundamental goal for our school.”
Prior to the formal ceremony at, a pipe ceremony was held earlier in the morning with students, school staff and other invited guests.
“We have a lot of hope for the future of Victor Thunderchild High school, and cannot wait to see it to fruition,” Rowden said.