Canadian Press

Canadian Press

Shift in perspective:’ Indigenous place names moving Canada from colonial past

A plan in March to use Indigenous names for some communities along the Sunshine Coast was met with backlash

To Terri Suntjens, symbolism means everything.

That’s why she decided to get involved with the City of Edmonton’s initiative to rename its wards. Suntjens, who is from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, became a co-chair of the Indigenous Naming Committee.

“Our elders talk to us about how symbolism is so important,” says Suntjens, who is also director of Indigenous initiatives at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

“And we can teach from that.”

Earlier this month, the city passed a bylaw to give its 12 numbered wards Indigenous names.

A committee of Indigenous women chose the names, which come from nine groups: Cree, Dene, Inuit, Blackfoot, Anishinaabe, Michif (Métis), Mohawk (Michel Band), Sioux and Papaschase.

Edmonton is a gathering place for all nations, Suntjens says, so it was important to consult with elders across the province.

The decision by Alberta’s capital to give its wards Indigenous names is an example of a movement in Canada away from names or figures with colonial connections.

In the summer, a group toppled a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal after a peaceful march through the city’s downtown, one of several demonstrations held across the country by a coalition of Black and Indigenous activists.

Other statues of Canada’s first prime minister have been a point of contention, too, as some want them removed because of his troubled history with Indigenous people.

In Halifax,a group including theAssembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs recommended a statue dedicated to city founder Edward Cornwallis be permanently removed, and a street and a park honouring him also be renamed.

Commemoration of Cornwallis, a British officer accused of genocide against Indigenous people, is incompatible with current values, the group said in a report in July.

Suntjens says there are schools across the country named after people with problematic colonial histories. Her committee decided early on to stay away from naming Edmonton’s wards after people and to honour the land instead.

“We do not think of people as above us or below us,” Suntjens says. “We don’t put people up on pedestals. That is not our way.”

The name for Edmonton’s former Ward 2, for example, is Aniriq, meaning breath of life or spirit in Inuktun. It was recommended by Inuit elders to honour their people who died of tuberculosis in Edmonton.

In the 1950s and ’60s, about one-third of Inuit were infected with the illness and most were flown south for treatment. Many died without their families being notified and were buried in cemeteries in the city.

Rob Houle, an Indigenous writer and researcher who also served on the renaming committee, says feedback has mostly been positive, but some councillors showed resistance.

“Some might have expected these Indigenous names for the wards to be easier or introductory in nature, but that is not what we were tasked to do.”

That kind of reaction prompted Edmonton Coun. Aaron Paquette to tweet: “For those who might be worried about pronouncing the potential new ward names … if we can pronounce Saskatchewan, we can do anything.”

READ MORE: Okanagan chief calls for change after clashes with B.C. conservation officer

In British Columbia, a plan in March to use Indigenous names for some communities along the Sunshine Coast was met with backlash.

Peter Robson, president of the Pender Harbour and Area Residents Association, says there was no warning or consultation with non-Indigenous people in the area.

He says his community of Madeira Park was to be renamed “salalus” as part of an agreement between the B.C. government and the Sechelt Nation in 2018.

“One cannot deny that (Sechelt) Nation people lived here before non-Indigenous people. However, there is also a newer history of the land … that too deserves recognition,” read Robson’s letter to the provincial government.

A more successful project happened in Alberta in September, when a racist and misogynistic nickname for a landmark on Mount Charles Stewart in the Rocky Mountains was removed. Elders chose to bring back the feature’s original name: Anu katha Ipa, or Bald Eagle Peak.

Christina Gray, a B.C.-based lawyer and research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute, a First-Nations-led think tank, commends Edmonton’s naming project and says she hopes to see other jurisdictions follow.

“This year in particular, we’ve seen a tidal shift in perspective, especially around problematic figures throughout Canadian history,” Gray says.

“It is also changing in so many different countries that have also experienced colonialism and imperialism.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2020.

Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Indigenous

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Bill Almond’s observatory in its new home on a Saanich lakeside. (Submitted/Cameron Burton)
Colwood stargazing dome makes a move to Saanich

The backyard structure finds a new home after 30 years

Chris Grzywacz, Seed and Stone’s development agent, holds products from the Songhees Cannabis S + S store on April 20. (Jake Romphf/ News Staff)
First cannabis store opens on Songhees Nation, creates economic opportunity says chief

The Songhees Cannabis S + S had a soft launch at its 1502 Admirals Road location on April 20

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

Darrel McLeod won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2018 for his first book, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age. His newly-released memoir, Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, follows as a sequel. (Black Press Media file)
Critically acclaimed Sooke author releases new memoir

Peyakow follows as a sequel to Darrel McLeod’s first book, Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age

RCMP have appealed to the public for help identifying the man. (Black Press Media file image)
Police, dog unit called after man exposed himself at West Shore elementary school

West Shore RCMP credits students, aged 11 and 5, for seeking help

FILE – NDP Leader John Horgan, right, and local candidate Mike Farnworth greet one another with an elbow bump during a campaign stop in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday, September 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. won’t be using random individual road stops to enforce travel rules: Safety Minister

Minister Mike Farnworth says travel checks only being considered at major highway junctions, ferry ports

A man pauses at a coffin after carrying it during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. announces historic half-billion-dollar funding for overdose crisis, mental health

Of it, $152 million will be used to address the opioid crisis and see the creation of 195 new substance use treatment beds

Children’s backpacks and shoes are seen at a CEFA (Core Education and Fine Arts) Early Learning daycare franchise, in Langley, B.C., on Tuesday May 29, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. budget to expand $10-a-day child care, but misses the mark on ‘truly universal’ system

$111 million will be used to fund 3,750 new $10-a-day spaces though 75 additional ChildCareBC universal prototype sites over the next three years.

Mak Parhar speaks at an anti-mask rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Parhar was arrested on Nov. 2 and charged with allegedly violating the Quarantine Act after returning from a Flat Earth conference held in Geenville, South Carolina on Oct. 24. (Flat Earth Focker/YouTube.com screenshot)
Judge tosses lawsuit of B.C. COVID-denier who broke quarantine after Flat Earth conference

Mak Parhar accused gov, police of trespass, malfeasance, extortion, terrorism, kidnapping and fraud

Ambulance paramedic in full protective gear works outside Lion’s Gate Hospital, March 23, 2020. Hospitals are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients more than a year into the pandemic. (The Canadian Press)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate declines, 849 cases Tuesday

Up to 456 people now in hospital, 148 in intensive care

Christy Clark, who was premier from 2011 to 2017, is the first of several present and past politicians to appear this month before the Cullen Commission, which is investigating the causes and impact of B.C.’s money-laundering problem over the past decade. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Christy Clark says she first learned of money-laundering spike in 2015

The former B.C. premier testified Tuesday she was concerned the problem was ‘apparently at an all-time high’

The city asking the public if they want to pursue legal action against the province and their decision to override the city on the Victory Church issue. (Jesse Day Western News)
Penticton ready to sue province over homeless shelter

City council voted unanimously to authorize legal action

Most Read