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The Fate of the Viking
March 1, 2022
Alexander Maas and Ali Sulfi, Grade 12

Over the last six months there have been rumours regarding the fate of the Viking mascot. Some suggest that it will be eradicated from the new school because of its ‘colonial’ connotations. Others suggest that there is nothing to question, that this is simply just another rumour, part of the drama that comes with high school life. Upon hearing this we wanted to know more, and set out to discover the real truth. We started by attempting to ask someone who might be involved with such a decision, and decided to email our principal Mr. Rawnsley. He said that no decision of that sort had been made yet, but referred us to our VP, Ms. Nicolidakis. We met with her to conduct a short interview, and were told no questions would be answered pertaining to the Viking. She instead discussed the efforts the school is putting into “decolonization”. Ms. Nicolidakis elaborated that it was important for the school to “[work] towards establishing a common respect… [and] work with the indigenous peoples of this land”. Something became clear to us over the course of these meetings: despite never saying it outright, Ms. Nicolidakis’ statements seem to suggest that such a change is at least seriously being discussed, and that this discussion is being carried out because the Vikings have something to do with ‘colonisation’. This concerns us, because not only is the Viking mascot a symbol of our school, but the Vikings also never participated in any major colonising efforts. Most importantly, we questioned whether the school community would be involved in the decision-making process at all. If this change to Burnaby North’s mascot is already in consideration, why not ask the school community before planning? We chose to get to the bottom of this issue.

Let us first delve into the history of this mascot’s legacy. Burnaby North Secondary did not have an official mascot until 1956, when a mascot contest was held among the student population. Jon McQuarrie, a former student of Burnaby North, entered his idea of having the Viking as the school mascot, and won the contest. Many years later, in 1987, an eight-year project was started by shop teacher John Clark to inspire his welding students and instil fear in rival schools. At the beginning, the plan was to create a metal Viking helmet. Then, as the project went on, they added a concrete body as well. Up to 80 dedicated students worked on the mascot sitting on top of the hill. It would be a shame to remove something that a group of passionate students worked so hard to create. Even though the literal Vikings may have some negative connotations in history, our school Viking mascot has a deeper meaning which has been strengthened as the years have passed. Furthermore, our school motto is excellence, discovery, and service, and the Viking is a perfect representation of what our school believes and stands by. We are known across BC as the Burnaby North Vikings. We are unique, and proud. Our fierce mascot differentiates us from other schools. The Vikings represent bravery, courage, strength, tenacity, and wisdom. One parent who participated in our survey told us: “A symbol can represent so many different things… Vikings represent the school values and the meaning of this iconic symbol has evolved throughout the years. To my children, it might mean bravery, courage, and strength, while to someone else it might represent hard work, commitment, and intelligence. The Viking mascot for Burnaby North Secondary does not represent the historical Vikings, yet, it is a mascot that has evolved over time and holds a deeper meaning than the masculine figure.” This demonstrates that, although it may have been an idea that was conjured up during a contest, it has built great significance over time. This parent’s belief echoes a similar concern throughout the school community. If the school is going to be the same in spirit, beliefs, and values, even as it moves into a brand-new building, what is the logical reasoning behind such a measure? 

The suggested reasoning behind removing the Viking is that Vikings somehow represent colonisation. This is confusing to us because, if colonialism is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “The practice of extending and maintaining… political and economic control over another people”, the Vikings never truly participated in any colonisation efforts. Rather, they established a small outpost with little outside contact, and never expanded past the confines of this settlement. This is unlike the British, Spanish, French, Dutch and Portuguese empires, which had colonies throughout the entire world, and committed the innumerable atrocities for which colonialism is known today. These states had brutal reputations for enslaving native populations, committing both cultural and literal genocide, and creating systems to exploit these territories for their gains. The Vikings never partook in such a system.

 The one exception to this, and what the school seems to be basing its judgement on, is the Viking presence at L’anse aux Meadows, in modern day Newfoundland. This was not, however, an exception to the norm; it was actually the standard. The Vikings first landed in Newfoundland in 1021, founding the settlement of Vinland in the process. This settlement was by no means large, having an estimated peak population of 160. This is in stark contrast to the settlements of Havana, Quebec, and New Amsterdam (now New York), with each of these supporting thousands of settlers. The settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows was, at the greatest estimate, in existence for only 100 years. During this time, starvation and attacks by local Indigenous peoples (believed to be ancestors of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq peoples) drove the Vikings out, or possibly forced them to integrate with the Indigenous peoples. The impact of the Vinland settlement is for the most part very minimal. The only reason for its significance is that it was the first European settlement in the Americas, but it has practically nothing in resemblance with these other settlements. The Vikings did not expand past the local area, did not dominate over the local tribes and did not attempt to establish a massive and globe-spanning empire. Their intent was never colonial in nature. If this small settlement had nothing in common with the great empires of the past, being of a different time period, scale and brutality, why should it be held in equal regard to them?

Equally as confusing to us, is the possible change is only based on rumours so far. Why isn’t the school community being kept informed and consulted on this? We decided to distribute a survey to see what some of the school community actually thought about the possible removal of the Viking statue and mascot when the new school is built. We collected data from a small sample size, but the results are nevertheless intriguing. There were 61 responses from students, staff, and parents in the community and one of the questions we asked in the survey was “Are you in favour of removing the Viking?” 82% of the respondents opposed removing the iconic statue. The main reasons? It is unique, a strong representation of the school, and a strong bond has been formed with the mascot over the years. On the other hand, only 18% of the respondents were in favour of removing the Viking. The most cited reason being because it is not a great representation of the diverse student population at our school. With these early results suggesting that a majority of the people who responded to the survey want the Viking to remain, it is surprising that the school is thinking of pushing this issue through without considering the wider community’s input. While the early data certainly does not represent the opinions of the entirety of the school population, or of the wider community, it does provide insight into some opinions. One parent who participated in the survey stated: “The Viking has been the school mascot for a number of years. Is the school having a new building or is the new building a different school? If the new school is still called Burnaby North Secondary, then keep the same mascot.” While this survey is by no means extensive and only provides a broad overview of possible responses, it does suggest further investigation is warranted.

To be clear, we are not saying that if something has been done a certain way for a long period of time, it has to stay that way. Burnaby North welcomes change and is always looking for new ways to adapt to the ever-changing world. However, something as symbolic as the Viking that has a strong connection with the school should not be taken away without fair and thorough consideration. The school community (including students, staff and parents) and the wider community (including First Nations) ought to be involved in the decision-making process to ensure that all voices are heard. The steps that we take to make the world a better place or fix our mistakes should not hinder what is already good. As students of Burnaby North Secondary, we deserve the right to voice our thoughts on this matter, and we hope that our strong bond to this iconic mascot and our school spirit is not cast aside without thorough and meaningful consultation. 

Reconciliation is an incredibly important step for both the school and Canada, and it allows us to understand, accept and provide some recompense for our horrifying past. Although there is an incredibly important and valid discussion that needs to be had around reconciliation and the crimes of our colonial past, this is not the way to do it. Forcing a change without first discussing the validity of its claims could set a dangerous precedent. If the school intends to make a change, they must first carefully look at the pros and cons, and ask the school community what their thoughts and opinions are. As Ms. Nicolidakis said during our interview: “Any single time [one is] forcing a structure [on someone], that is colonial [itself].