What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.
-Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
How little the Bard could’ve predicted the ado around the idea of changing the name of Stanley Park. Earlier this month, the Squamish First Nation and Tourism Vancouver proposed changing the name of Stanley Park to Xwayxway, the name of a Squamish village which was once located there.
After a few days of outcry from those opposed the Harper government stepped in and killed the idea, but it hasn’t stopped the debate.
I don’t really care much about place names. Stanley Park or Xwayxway? As long as I can still walk the seawall, it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me. My initial reaction was if the Squamish Nation thinks it’s important, I’d go for it. Symbolic change can be meaningful, so it might be worth doing as a sort of olive branch. Renaming could be a step in the right direction to combating internalized racism. But the danger would be if re-naming things became the be-all and end-all of Aboriginal policy.
That’s why I agree with Bill Tieleman’s take on the issue: “Let’s do something truly significant, as opposed to paying lip service by a name change that won’t change reality for First Nations students or people but will make lots of people angry.”
He’s right: if the only point is for the government to make a gesture that pretty much says: “I can’t possibly be racist: some of my best friends are Aboriginal,” it’s not going to do much to address the real material inequalities facing First Nations people.
That said, I did take a bit of issue with Tieleman’s assertion that the naming debate is all about “feeling guilty for bygone colonialism that none of us were remotely involved in.” I might not have personally dispossessed First Nations people from their land but I live comfortably in a social order that validates my history and culture, teaches my language as the standard, and where most of the schools, monuments, streets, and parks ARE named after Europeans. There is reason, if not to feel guilty (which tends to impede taking action), then to reflect and act on our privilege.
But obviously Tieleman isn’t suggesting we just sit back: his argument is that we need concrete action to resolve land claims and dealing with the drop-out rate among First Nations high schoolers.
In other words, a far more rational and less offensive position than the editorial in the Vancouver Sun from Wednesday, which basically argued that we’re all immigrants with equal right to enjoy Stanley Park, and so politicians should stop pandering to First Nations and trying to “obliterate the heritage of others”.
That’s pretty rich given all the times Europeans actually did try to obliterate Aboriginal heritage, through residential schools and other assimilationist policies (If you want to see evidence of racism still alive and well, check out the comments on this story at the Province website). It hardly compares to potentially re-naming a park.
And what exactly is this “heritage” they’d be “obliterating”? I just looked up Lord Stanley because I didn’t know much other than that he gave us the Stanley Cup. A quick and totally unscientific survey of white friends and acquaintances revealed no one who knew much more than I did. Turns out he was a Governor General, an avid fisherman, close friends with Sir John A. Macdonald, and had a wife who founded Ottawa’s first nursing school. My point is that it’s not like Canadian children of European descent sit around the fireplace learning the great tales of Lord Stanley of Preston. I’m sure he was a great guy, but you can hardly make the case that dropping his name from the park would leave some unfathomable hole in our culture. Anyway, we’d still have the Stanley Cup.
So a nice gesture? Sure. Worth the hassle/expense? The jury’s still out, in my view. At the very least, it shouldn’t just be used as a token gesture to disguise a lack of real commitment to rectifying material inequalities.