The places and institutions that have marked Lauren Beck’s life have all been named for men — and with one exception, white men. And, as a Canadian, that’s not unusual.
A Mount Allison professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in Intercultural Encounter, Beck is the author of the new book Canada’s Place Names & How to Change Them, published in October by Concordia University Press.
The book looks at the origins of Canada’s place names, differences between European and Indigenous naming practices, and the complexities around how and whether to change place names.
Beck has a PhD in Hispanic Studies. She had originally intended to work on a larger project about naming in the Americas, but with the pandemic, flying to Chile to do research was no longer in the cards. Instead, she decided to focus on Canada.
“The last book that tries to address Canadian place names in this way was published in 2001. So there’s been really very little work on it,” she said in an interview with the Halifax Examiner.
Names bear meaning, and decisions on changing them are also meaningful, whether we are talking about taking a spouse’s name, or renaming a community.
“We come from a place and we want it to matter in some way,” she said. “When we are in whatever grade and first start studying the map of Canada, how names came to be goes unquestioned. Ideology undergirds every representation of the world and because we don’t tend to question it, it’s quite powerful, I think, for our identities.”
We are in the midst of a spate of renaming in Nova Scotia, and across the country. The Nova Scotia Community College announced last week that once its new Sydney campus opens it will drop the name Marconi. (Marconi was an anti-semite who belonged to Italy’s National Fascist Party.)
Cornwallis Park in Halifax has been renamed, and the city is in the process of changing the name of Cornwallis Street. Halifax-area high schools have dropped the names of Prince Andrew and Sir John A. Macdonald. And in Toronto, the former Ryerson University is now Toronto Metropolitan University. (Ryerson’s work helped shape the residential school system.)
So, a book about naming practices — and the practice of changing names — is timely.
Naming as a form of power and authority
Colonial naming has long been about power and authority. When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they assigned new names as a way of exalting the church, massaging the egos of the rich and powerful, and asserting control over territories by characterizing them as nameless.
In the book, Beck writes:
Columbus, along with other Europeans, was aware that places, people, geographic features, and objects already possessed a nomenclature developed by the islands’ native inhabitants, but he nonetheless bestowed names upon them… Columbus pushes forward with what becomes a place-naming program the likes of which had never before been seen in Europe. All the while, Columbus documented over a hundred Indigenous toponyms, however imperfectly, and we can understand from the outset that the projection of a European name gave a place its substance in Columbus’s eyes.
Not surprisingly, Beck writes, “When place names and emblems are selected by individuals who hold patriarchal and white supremacist worldviews, those biases will be reflected in a place’s identity.”
So, who is reflected in Canadian place names? One demographic dominates: white men. Beck opens the chapter “Gender and Canada’s Place Names” by looking at who the places that have marked her are named for:
When I reflect upon my own place identity — a resident of Sackville, New Brunswick, who hails from St. Thomas, Ontario, and attended schools such as Tom Longboat Elementary in Scarborough, Ontario, and the University of Waterloo — it becomes apparent that the landscape of my identity is masculine, as all but one of these names commemorate the actions and lives of white men.
(The exception is Longboat, a Haudenosaunee long-distance runner who won the 1907 Boston Marathon, among other feats.)
It’s not just that names commemorate men because they were doing the exploring and conquering and whatnot. Beck notes that “a wealth of names points to ordinary men who owned land or staked a claim to it” but “nearly no names commemorate everyday women.” Or women at all, for that matter, unless they are saints. And even then, only 20% of the thousands of places named for saints in Quebec bear the names of women.
Women do get places named for their body parts though, like a rock called the Teat (Ontario), and peaks known as the Nipples (BC). And, of course, place names with the word squaw. Beck notes that in Quebec, a lake called Lac-de-la-Squaw was renamed in 1985 to the not much better Lac Sauvagesse (Lake of the Savage Woman).
In March 2022, MP Charlie Angus introduced a motion calling on the city of Ottawa to rename the street where the Russian embassy is located. The motion, which suggests renaming Charlotte Street to honour Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, passed unanimously.
This kind of renaming is problematic on a number of levels, Beck said. It strips a female name from the street (it’s actually named for two women: Princess Charlotte and Ottawa’s first woman mayor, Charlotte Whitton). And it replaces it with a living figure, which could bring its own set of problems down the line.
Zelenskyy, Beck said, “now is in the good books, I think, in the Western world. But who knows what will happen in the course of time? From studying place-name policy across the country at the municipal level, one thing I’ve noticed is that there’s now a more strict discouragement of naming places after people — specifically living people. They want you to be nice and dead.”
The one context in which institutions and sometimes municipalities seem to have no problem naming things after living people or corporations is donations. Beck points to New Brunswick, “where we have an Irving park in, I don’t know, every other city” and to “university campuses where we have [buildings named for] a donor who has provided money.”
Naming buildings and so on for donors represents a break from older types of commemorations, but Beck notes that it generally tends to reinforce the same demographic.
“If you give money, lots of people are conditioned to think it’s reasonable that your name might be associated with that money when it comes to the building, or the park, or the street, or whatever,” Beck said. “From a demographic perspective, it ends up reinforcing the status quo of more names being representative of men than women — white men in particular. Is that a problem? I don’t know. But I think it might be a problem.”
Descriptive vs commemorative names
Generally, Beck argues in the book, Indigenous naming practices tend to be more descriptive than commemorative.
This difference is particularly striking when settlements move. Beck writes:
By the middle of the seventeenth century, Jesuits had lived for a couple of decades among the Wendat, whose settlements migrated to new areas whenever the land and natural resources required renewal. The Wendat bestowed a different name for each settlement that they established. European settlements, however, tended to be fixed in terms of both their locations and names, and even when their settlements moved the same name tended to be used for the new location.
The process of decolonizing names can be complicated by the fact that commemorative names are generally “not all that compatible” with Indigenous naming practices, Beck said. But times also change, and contemporary Indigenous communities are more likely to embrace names that commemorate people as well.
“Hopefully we’ll see more specific individuals being commemorated from Indigenous communities, which I think would be a good thing, and also a placemaking practice that makes greater room available for otherwise marginalized communities,” Beck said.
So, what do we do about the eight Canadian places named for Cornwallis, or the 134 place names commemorating John A. Macdonald?
Beck said one possibility is giving places more than one name. “Are Canadians capable of knowing a bit more toponomy in their lives? I think so,” Beck said.
There’s a lot of precedent fort this practice, as the 350-year-old map above shows. And there are contemporary examples, too. Take the Indigenous community of Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, which is also known as Big Cove. Beck said younger people mostly use the name Elsipogtog, while elders she has spoken to tend to use Big Cove. But “the names are mutually understandable. Everyone understands to which community you’re referring to.”
Interestingly, the official name of the community is neither Big Cove nor Elsipogtog, but rather a name nobody uses: Richibucto 15 (denoting the 15th of 28 reserves in the province).
Sackville, the New Brunswick town where Beck lives and works, is undergoing a name change, too, becoming Tantramar. Sackville is named for Lord George Sackville, who at one point was court martialled and found “unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever.” But the name change has nothing to do with his military service or political career. Rather, it’s an administrative matter, with New Brunswick amalgamating towns into larger regional municipalities and changing some names along the way, much as Nova Scotia has done.
“It’s been really interesting to see how it’s happening, and how people are trying to be deliberate in using the new name to try and get used to it. But also there are others who are like, ‘I don’t want to let go of Sackville,'” Beck said. “So, I’ll be curious to see in 10 or 20 years how well the subscription to the new name has gone, or if we keep with our old identities as constituent names for this new municipality.”
Changing racist names: the importance of local action
Some name changes happen quickly, while others are multi-generational projects. Official naming authorities like the federal Geographic Names Board of Canada and its provincial counterparts tend to be under-resourced and move slowly. So, Beck said, sometimes the most effective way to make change is on the local level.
Take Coon Pond in Upper Tantallon. In May of this year, District 13 Coun. Pam Lovelace took a petition to council asking for a name change, and called for a staff report.
The name of the pond is a racist slur, but we don’t know if that was the meaning intended by whoever named it. Asked if the original intent matters, Beck said it does, but up to a point. An objectionable name offers an opportunity to investigate its history, and, if necessary, to change the name as a way to clarify meaning. Maybe the pond’s name refers to a person, for instance, in which case their first name could be added. If it refers to raccoons, the full name of the animal could be used.
But if the original intention is unclear or ambiguous, Beck said it’s best to change it.
“I think once a name becomes associated with hate and inequality, and when there are other examples of that that you can point to, it’s very difficult to keep a name like Coon,” she said.
In 1991, the Ontario Geographic Names Board moved to rename a Coon Lake in Ontario’s North Kawartha Township, to Raccoon Lake. Some residents were upset, not because they wanted to keep the current name, but because they had not been consulted, and had hoped for a different name.
Earlier this year, the process of renaming the lake again began, this time with consultation, the Peterborough Examiner reported. “The potential names are Esban Lake, which is the Indigenous/Ojibwe name for raccoon, or Little Burleigh Lake, used locally prior to 1952,” reporter Brendan Burke writes.
In 2019, Suzanne Rent wrote about Upper Tantallon residents upset about the racist connotations of the name. They asked their MLA, Ben Jessome, about changing it. Rent outlines the process involved (and it is involved):
Bruce Nunn, a spokesperson with the Department of Service Nova Scotia and Internal Services, says the province refers to the Principles and Procedures for Geographical Naming (2011) when people send off submissions for name changes in geographic features. Those guidelines are here.
Nunn says anyone looking to change a name should review those guidelines before they submit a proposal to GeoNOVA here. A new name or a name change has to have strong local support or longstanding local use (Spinney-Hutton says this is why he wants to work with the homeowners association to change the name). Any historical data, including deeds, maps, and so on, should be included with the application. If the application is approved by the Geographical Names Board of Canada [GNBC], the applicant has to have a petition or plebiscite to prove community support. New names or those of a sensitive nature may need cabinet approval. All the details on the process are found here.
The petition or plebiscite has to be submitted to Council for a motion. The application has to include a letter of support from the MLA. The petition, council minutes, the letter from the MLA, and any other information goes to the Geographical Names Board of Canada at GIS where it’s reviewed by the Nova Scotia representative. A report and recommendation is created and may go to cabinet for approval, although the report and recommendation is not needed if the change is minor. In that case, the change is approved by the Nova Scotia representative.
This is where informal names come in. If the community starts calling the pond something else, and that name gets widely adopted, it may eventually become the official name. That’s what happened with Peace and Friendship Park, formerly Cornwallis Park, in Halifax. In 2009, activists protesting the Halifax Security Forum covered the still-standing statue of Cornwallis in the park, and renamed it Peace and Friendship Park. The name entered common currency, and was officially adopted in 2021.
Google Maps changes the game
Google Maps can also speed along the process, because anyone can pin an informal name. Beck pointed to Dude Chilling Pond and nearby Dude Chilling Brook in Sackville, presumably pinned to the map by someone emulating the more famous Dude Chilling Park in Vancouver.
Beck said, “somebody just created it and it appears to have stuck.” Because of the ubiquity of Google Maps, “A corporation now seems to have sort of replaced the authority that the GNBC used to be sole administrator of in Canada,” Beck said. “You can request a modification of an existing name, and they do it! And they seem to do it without, well, without making sure whatever they change it to agrees with what the official name is.”
Sometimes, that’s a problem. In her book, Beck tells the story of Squaw’s Tit, the unofficial name for the peak of Mount Charles Stewart in Canmore, Alta. After much debate — and consultation with the Stoney Nakoda Nation — the town asked the province to change the name to Anû kathâ Îpa, which translates as Bald Eagle Peak.
Indigenous names have to be not only approved by the province, but also the federal government. The Canadian Geographical Names Database shows the name Anû kathâ Îpa (Bald Eagle Peak) was approved in 2021. Google Maps had already changed the name by then, but to the English version. (Searching for Anû kathâ Îpa will take you there, but the name doesn’t show up on the map.)
Renaming as an opportunity to re-engage
Done well, renaming can be an act of reconciliation, but Beck warned against renaming as a cosmetic exercise that avoids engaging with history.
“One of the dangers we have in removing the Ryersons and the Cornwallises is that the removal conveniently puts aside references to, or a celebration of, settler-colonial violence. But it doesn’t really do anything to rectify it. It just puts something out of sight. And that might be okay if it makes, say, an Indigenous community feel more comfortable being in that space,” she said.
“But then on the other side of things, settler-colonial people don’t get to encounter and remind themselves about what that legacy is… I think there’s a useful exercise there for encountering settler-colonial violence as a form of public education of what not to do in the future.”
At the same time, local or institutional renaming can open the door to greater awareness of the names around us. If Ryerson changes its name, that may lead people to wonder about the Ryerson street in their municipality. Is it named for the same person? If not, who is it named after anyway?
“I think there’s an opportunity there to try and bathe more light on what names mean within the community. And that can also give the communities an opportunity to redefine their names, making the most of the status quo, because it’s not all about removal; it’s also about contextualization in the event that names are deemed no longer desirable.”
Whatever new names are chosen, Beck urges a little creativity.
“It’s so boring, isn’t it?” she said of Bay View, the new name of the former Sir John A. Macdonald high school in Upper Tantallon. “It sounds like a California high school. Like some young adult TV series.”