While taking down monuments and renaming sports teams can seem Orwellian, why shouldn’t we rename “British Columbia” and “Victoria” given they were acts of renaming themselves.
TWO YEARS AGO, following a full year’s discussion and cogitation, Victoria City council removed a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from its prominent place outside City Hall.
Sir John A. did represent Victoria as an absentee MP but his connection with the city is actually measured in the few days 134 years ago when he came out to drive the last spike in the now defunct Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. That, it should be remembered, was an era when politicians campaigned on platforms promising to keep British Columbia a “white man’s country.”
Macdonald was the engineer of a bold attempt at cultural destruction using residential schools, as well as an Indian Act which disenfranchised and disposed indigenous populations. He was also behind the first Chinese Immigration Act which was aimed at excluding Asians, violent suppression of Metis language and land rights on the Prairies, and the ethnic cleansings and separation of First Nations from economic resources that resulted in “Indian reserves”—a far more comfortable euphemism than “concentration camps.”
Council persevered despite affront from those who frequently wrap an apparent angst over social change in the increasingly threadbare cloak of patriotic loyalty to the monarchy, the supposed integrity of history, devotion to the continuity of Canada’s public institutions, keeping up tradition and so on.
In retrospect, council’s decision looks downright prescient, which is saying something for the folks who spent more than a million dollars-a-metre to replace a bridge so short a good high school sprinter could cross in 10 seconds.
A peaceful demonstration beside the statue of Queen Victoria in front of the BC Parliament Buildings. This demonstration was not directly related to Queen Victoria’s well-documented role in colonization and expansion of the British Empire. Victoria and British Columbia were colonized early in her reign. Should her statue be removed and Victoria and BC be renamed?
Desire for decolonization, acknowledgement of the racialized ethnocentrism that has been the engine of imperialism, nationalism and a host of other unpleasant “isms,” and striving for reconciliation with the colonized seems to be gathering momentum, particularly with young people.
Concerns have moved on from the graven image of Canada’s principal engineer. Everywhere, it seems, statues of merchants who created and benefited from the monstrous economic machinery of slavery, politicians and jurists who legislated and legitimized colonial theft, and the adventurers and soldiers who enabled and defended the slave trade are now being removed by officials or toppled in public protest.
Are there excesses occasionally rooted in ignorance? Sure, but they pale in comparison to the excesses rooted in ignorance and malice that were perpetrated by the people whose legacies are now under review.
We’re removing the names of racists once celebrated as upstanding citizens from schools and universities, public buildings, parks and landmarks. We’re now co-naming places with both indigenous and mainstream names that better reflect the dualities inherent in the emerging culture of our “here” as opposed to the psychologies of the colonized seeking to import and impose a distant “there” from Europe or Asia or Africa.
The colonized mind gave us replicas of Greek temples, Roman pantheons, Gothic cathedrals, Egyptian obelisks, Bavarian villages, Japanese tea houses, Chinese pagodas and even English faux Tudor thatch cottages—in a rain forest, yet—almost everywhere we look.
And the accusing finger of accountability has now properly moved on from the institutions of governance to those of popular culture, sports in particular.
Some, alert to the changing mood, have moved swiftly to change common racialized nicknames. Junior B hockey’s Saanich Braves is changing the name because, its owners say, it’s just the right thing not to give offence to the many indigenous communities that surround and permeate the Capital Region.
The Edmonton Eskimos, on the other hand, having resisted and rationalized for years in the face of calls to change a nickname that many Inuit find insulting, decided to find another moniker for the professional football team only after a major sponsor threatened to abandon ship, thus putting a whole new spin on the club’s colours—green and gold.
In the US, the Washington Redskins reached the same conclusion when a major sponsor threatened to depart, causing wags to suggest the most appropriate new nickname might be the Washington Greenbacks. Plenty of other teams from high schools to college and professional ranks are getting the same message.
You’d think, from the subsequent gnashing of teeth and cries of enraged anguish from some fans and sports pundits in Edmonton that changing a name that many find objectionable is somehow equivalent to blowing up the Parthenon or pulling down the temple of Solomon.
Well, not quite. Sports franchise owners who make money from branding are quite happy to change nicknames, team colours, team logos and even cities whenever the prospect of greater returns from their business is perceived elsewhere.
One need look no further than Victoria for a prime example.
More than a hundred years ago, Victoria had a terrific professional hockey team, the Senators. The Senators renamed themselves the Aristocrats, then they moved to Spokane as the Canaries but came back to Victoria a year later as the Aristocrats, again. Then they played four years as the Cougars, won a Stanley Cup from the Montreal Maroons and immediately cashed in by selling all their players to new owners and moving to Detroit to join the new National Hockey League in which they first played as the Cougars, then became the Falcons and finally the Red Wings..
Their foes, the Portland Rosebuds, transformed into the core of a new NHL franchise in Chicago. They got renamed the Black Hawks and then were rebranded again from a double-barrelled to a single-barrelled name as the Blackhawks—almost the reverse of the geographical renaming going on here where Gulf Islanders reject single-barrelled Saltspring for double-barrelled Salt Spring, although perhaps a better change would be to the SENĆOŦEN place name for the island, W̱ENÁ¸NEĆ, which certainly has a longer and more authentic pedigree.
The process of decolonizing won’t be quick, painless or as easy as toppling a few statues or changing the hurtful names, mottos and mascots of sports teams. It will involve reimagining the way we relate to the landscape itself—and through it to one another.
A PALIMPSEST IS A PARCHMENT which has been repurposed for a new text only to have the script and images of the older story reemerge through the new narrative.
It’s most often used in reference to documents from the ancient world in which pages capable of preserving text were so valuable and books so rare that as cultural values changed over lifespans and even centuries, one hand-written document might be erased so that a new one could be superimposed.
Among the most famous examples are sections of Homer’s Iliad and Euclid’s writing on geometry that were transcribed in the 6th Century but then, 300 years later, erased and covered with the writings of a Christian patriarch.
The only surviving section of a 4th Century copy of Cicero’s writings on Roman politics was found beneath a 7th Century copy of St Augustine’s writing. And the work of Greek mathematician Archimedes that had been copied onto parchment in the 10th Century was later found beneath a 12th Century liturgy.
In a way, our whole cultural history is a series of palimpsests, and succeeding generations seek to edit and propagandize (one way or the other) the past and the accomplishments of previous generations they wish to either diminish or aggrandize as affirmation of their own worth.
The United Kingdom, to which our monarchist enthusiasts and defenders of tradition so fondly hearken, is a series of overlays in which successive conquerors imposed their place names upon the landscape as a way of asserting control and superiority over the colonized.
Eburos of the Eburorovices becomes Eboracum under the Romans then becomes Eoforwic under the Angles, becomes Jorvik under the Danes and finally becomes York.
In a more brutal example of erasing evidence of what went before, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan soldiers, fired by iconoclastic religious zeal, rampaged through cathedrals smashing the stained glass, carved crosses and effigies on 400-year-old medieval graves whose coats of arms they associated with the hated 17th-century monarchy.
One can see parallels here in the use of residential schools to erase language and social cohesion, the wholesale looting and destruction of art and artifacts, the casual renaming of places and even people, the outlawing of cultural and spiritual rites and traditions and other transgressions against the colonized.
And so it has been through history, from Egyptian pharaohs erasing the stone glyphs of previous and subsequently-reviled dynasties to Taliban zealots blowing up ancient Buddhas in Afghanistan.
Lord Elgin, later governor of Canada, presided in 1860 over one of history’s great examples of such imperial vandalism, sending 3,500 drunken troops to sack China’s ancient Summer Palace in a vindictive orgy of looting and arson. China isn’t without fault, either. It has destroyed 6,000 ancient monasteries in Tibet since invading in 1946. Romans pulling down Jewish temples, Muslims and Christians seizing, renaming and repurposing the religious sites of each other—the unpleasant legacy is long and ubiquitous.
In a way, all our maps represent cultural palimpsests. The movements of peoples bring new languages and as places are occupied new place names are superimposed. Sometimes it’s merely for the convenience of new settlers who can’t be troubled to learn the languages of people who preceded them. Sometimes it is to affirm and imprint the authority of new overlords upon previously-owned and since stolen landscapes. Sometimes it’s a conscious effort to make manifest George Orwell’s observation from 1984 that controlling the past ensures control of the future.
And yet, what seems so permanent in the present can be entirely ephemeral in the passage of time.
Thus, in the historical blink of an eye, the indigenous Camosack becomes Fort Camosun with the arrival of the fur trade in 1843, then becomes Fort Albert in 1845, then Fort Victoria with British colonial status, then just Victoria. Is there a compelling reason that it shouldn’t revert to Camosack, other than a desire to cling to the belief that for some reason the ugly icons of imperialism, occupation and the deliberate disenfranchising and dispossessing of indigenous minorities somehow deserve to be fossilized and commemorated?
Place names change all the time. They reflect dynamic patterns of occupation, the amended political needs of the moment and evolving cultural values.
Saint Petersburg becomes Leningrad and reverts to Saint Petersburg. Constantinople, the great capital of Byzantium, becomes the Istanbul of the Ottomans. The United Kingdom has changed its name twice and may have to change it yet again if Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales decide they might have a better future inside Europe rather than out of it and dominated by England.
On some ancient maps, what’s now British Columbia appears as Fusang from a legendary Chinese exploration, probably mythical, but who knows? On others, it’s New Albion, supposedly from an expedition by Sir Francis Drake who got his financial start as a pirate and trader in slaves.
Captain George Vancouver called it New Georgia and New Hanover.
Fur trader Simon Fraser, approaching overland from the northeast, called it New Caledonia because he supposed it looked like the Scotland he’d never seen and would never see.
The northwest corner was the Stickeen Territory. To the south it was the Columbia District; to the west was Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, later shortened to Vancouver Island as English bureaucrats dumped the Spanish connection when it became a British colony; further north was Haida Gwaii—Santa Margarita to the Spanish—renamed Queen Charlotte Islands after his ship by a trader in sea otter pelts and finally, after 200 years or so, reclaimed by its original inhabitants as Haida Gwaii. All these names were changed, abandoned, subsumed or remerged from the palimpsest of colonization and decolonization.
The Fraser River was Lhta:ko to some, Tacoutche Tesse to yet others. It was Sto:lo, the Quw’utsun’s River, Rio Floridablanca, New Caledonia River, Jackanet River, and finally was named by explorer, trader and cartographer David Thompson after Fraser, the first European to descend to its estuary in 1808.
Indeed, many of the province’s place names were bestowed by upwardly mobile British surveyors to please friends or toady to bureaucrats, politicians or minor royalty who might look favourably upon them someday.
And yet, the magnificent landscape we, for the moment, at least, call British Columbia is the same despite the startling transience in its names.
Considering that the British presence here has been about 200 years out of probably 14,000 of occupation—which is about 1.4 percent of the time of human habitation—why not rename the province for something more representative of the braided narrative of our emerging collective history?
How about Saghallie Illahie? It is a term from the Chinook trade language invented by European and indigenous traders to communicate with each other for mutual benefit.
Saghallie Illahie can mean either Heaven, or the High Country, both of which seem to apply here. In any event, proposing a new name for our home, one that’s from here and not from half a planet and a couple of centuries away seems neither outlandish nor unreasonable.
At least no more unreasonable than sticking with British Columbia which creates a strange amalgam of analogies. British, of course, excludes the people already here, not to mention the other European, Asian and African settlers who helped make the place what it is. And Columbia, at its kindest, evokes the female national personification of another cruel, imperialistic and colonial country—the United States—while at its unkindest, it evokes Christopher Columbus, the brutal and avaricious slave trader who unleashed upon the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere one of the greatest calamities in human history.
How about a name that seeks to speak to and for all of us and not the worst in some of us?
Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island. His byline has appeared in most major Canadian newspapers. The author of nine books of poetry, natural history, history and literary essays, he lives on the Saanich Peninsula.