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'A critical point in May Day's story': New West group looks for school board support

New Westminster's May Day celebrations are "incredibly vulnerable" without more help, board hears.

New Westminster’s May Day youth committee would like the school district to lend more support to the city’s May Day celebrations.

Committee member Scott Rains appeared at the school board meeting Tuesday night (May 23) to ask for the district’s help in keeping May Day celebrations going in the city.

Rains reminded trustees of the long history of May Day in New Westminster. The first celebration was marked in 1870 as an attempt to save the town at the end of the Cariboo Gold Rush — as New Westminster saw its population fall from 10,000 people to less than 500 within two years.

“Facing the death of the community, a May Day celebration was organized as a bid to raise community spirit and to draw people from the rest of the Fraser Valley to New Westminster and to act as a send-off to the townspeople should New Westminster collapse,” Rains noted. “Fortunately, the celebration was a hit, and the population of the town began to increase.”

Since then, Rains said, May Day has played a vital role in the community’s identity and marked a “rite of passage” for generations of New Westminster children.

May Day 'incredibly vulnerable,' school board hears

But Rains said the past several years have been hard on May Day celebrations — first, as the school district stepped away from organizing and hosting the event, and then as celebrations were hit by the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rains said he and other members of the committee have been working to develop a new identity for the community celebration — one that makes it more reflective of the city’s cultural diversity and involves local First Nations, while continuing to celebrate the community’s history.

This year’s celebrations will include Chinese, Ukrainian and Highland folk dances along with the traditional maypole dancing, he told the board.

They’ve also done extensive outreach to students and in the community, he said.

“Despite these advancements, May Day is incredibly vulnerable at the moment, and without more cooperation from the city and from schools, it will die,” he said.

Rains said he’d like to see a “new relationship” formed between the school district and the May Day celebrations.

May Day committee looks for support from school district

Rains stressed he’s not looking for a return to the time when May Day folk dances were taught in schools, acknowledging concerns from teachers over spending educational time on those lessons.

But he suggested a few ways for the district to support the organization — including allowing them to install more posters in schools than external organizations are currently allowed to do, providing take-home pamphlets in “accessible areas” in schools, and promoting May Day dance lessons in school’s morning announcements and bulletins.

Along with that, he said, the organization would like to get preference for rental times and locations for dance practices in schools, with the rental fee waived, if possible.

Rains told trustees most May Day dance lessons have been run out of Connaught Heights and F.W. Howay schools, the “two smallest and least accessible schools in the district,” and at times that made it inconvenient for parents.

“We simply want the district to help us facilitate our management of the dance lessons and to make it available to students as an extracurricular activity,” he said.

“Though the schools have removed themselves from the event, we ask that you do all you can, within reason, to support us. … We are in a critical point in May Day’s story, and the decision of this board regarding what I presented today will surely impact whether May Day lives or dies.

“We have heard your concerns and concerns from the community and are adapting to satisfy them. And, like yourselves, we are finding our own ways to address the act of healing the darker elements of our community’s history.

“As such, we ask you to remain open to the conversation regarding what roles May Day in schools may play in the future.”

District supports 'personal choice' of students, families

Board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal said the board stands behind the decision that was made to transition May Day out of schools and into the hands of a community organization.

“We do support the personal choice of every student, family and community member who would like to participate,” she said.

She said district staff support the promotion of May Day as they do any other community event, allowing information about the celebrations to be shared via school newsletters — “ a practice which will definitely remain in place,” she said.

“Our facility staff will continue to work with all community organizations who seek to rent out school district spaces, to which we rent out at non-profit rates,” she said.

📢 SOUND OFF: Do you take part in May Day celebrations? How would you like to see the celebration evolve? If you have ideas about the future of May Day and how (or if) the school district and city should support it, let us know — send us a letter.

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