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Blog

Naming is Colonialism

Matthew Dance

Take a look at a map of Edmonton. A close look, here or Google Maps would also do, here.

What do you notice? Roads? Maybe the map colours? Or perhaps the neighbourhoods? There's the river; and my house is around here (I always look for my house, or the house I grew up in). 

Sure. 

Look again at the names. 

Windermere. Keswick. Ambleside. Empire Park. I could go on (and on). 

In fact, of the 1300 or so  named places in Edmonton, the vast majority of them represent the names of places, or people, from the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Of those 1300 or so names, less than 130 represent the First Nations or Metis peoples who currently here or who lived here prior to Edmonton being "discovered" in 1754 by Anthony Hendey. Less than 130; that is about 10% of Edmonton's named places represent FNM peoples, and most of those FNM names are not culturally or geographically significant.

[Place names]…play an important cultural role by identifying our societal values and by serving as a medium to commemorate people and events. 
                    Government of Alberta Geographic Names Manuel (2012)

As Berg and Kearns (1996) state, “…naming places reinforces claims of national ownership, state power, and masculine control” and as such act as an explicit tool of repression. If you want to claim the narrative of a colonized place, name it after your places and people from where you came.

If we were to peer under this veneer of Britain, to peel back the thin layers of Monarchs and the Lake District, we would find a deep and yet largely unknown (to settlers) FNM history including a vast web of named places. What is it that prevents settlers from knowing this past? What does that fact say about the relationship between FNM peoples and Settlers?

Edmonton and its surrounds have been in use for at least 8000 years. Area archaeological sites date back to 6000 BC. To put that into perspective, if Settlers have been here for 2.6mm (remember that Edmonton was discovered in 1754), First Nations people have been occupying and using Edmonton for 8cm.

That is a thin veneer of Britain indeed.

Edmonton has been occupied for over 8000 years by First Nations people, and yet the vast majority of Edmonton place names are drawn from a thin veneer of settler occupation of the last 262 years.

Edmonton has been occupied for over 8000 years by First Nations people, and yet the vast majority of Edmonton place names are drawn from a thin veneer of settler occupation of the last 262 years.

Mental Maps

A mental map is an 'inner eye' representation of how we think of a place. Mental maps reflect the deep and nuanced understanding of place (those locations that are important to us) that each and every one of us posses, and Edmonton has millions of mental maps representing millions peoples thoughts on place. 

The one pictured below is from my MA research.  This image was captured from a 45 minute video of a person (an 'informant') drawing their mental map of Goldbar. The informant also discussed, in great detail, all of the features that were being drawn, and the memories each one invoked. The following quote is a short excerpt (from over 10 typed pages of description) of his memories of this place.

A mental map of Gold Bar (Dance, 2012).

A mental map of Gold Bar (Dance, 2012).

There was a path in the woods there, and we call that Moonies run because our teacher, Mr. Moonie, lived right there. My friend played guitar and I played guitar, and we used to take our amps, carry our amps across back and forth across the river. At this point here right in the middle of the bridge was we deemed that as perfectly half way, so we would say, ‘Okay, I’ll meet you on the bridge’. But yeah, I spent a lot of time down there, in Gold Bar.

Place

A place is comprised of its physical characteristics, the activities that occur there, and the meanings derived through interactions between users, their activities, and those characteristics (Dance, 2012). Places define how we see and use an urban area. Places are those locations that offer vibrancy and connection within a city, and focus our desire to live in a specific location.

And a place name is nothing more than short hand for all those nuanced layers of meaning. Place names are important, and Edmonton does not adequately recognize those people who have called this place home for 8000 years. In fact, the continued lack of formal process that acknowledge FNM place names in Edmonton is colonialism.  For a city in Reconciliation I would expect policy supporting the naming of Edmonton's places for historic FNM places names.

It's almost as though we Settlers are trying to deny a history.

Policy

The Naming Committee policy (specifically, Policy C509B) states that the purpose of the Naming Committee is to:

  1. Establish naming criteria;
  2. Establish principles for the naming of development areas, parks, municipal facilities, roads, and honorary roads, and, if requested by the City Manager, components of municipal facilities;
  3. Establish principles to recognize former Mayors; and
  4. Establish principles to recognize former Councillors.

 
Furthermore, The Naming Committee Bylaw 17138 [PDF] stipulates that 'The Naming Committee will establish and maintain The Names Reserve list.' and that City Council can appoint members.

While it is necessary to recognize former Mayors and City Councillors, it is even more important to recognize first peoples. That will not occur in a meaningful way until it is reflected in policy.

Reconciliation?

Current City of Edmonton place naming practice (supported by policy) is colonial in that settlers are imposing British names on an already named landscape: 

  1. Current place names are overwhelmingly British in origin;
  2. Policy supports the naming of places after council members and the Mayer, yet doesn't explicitly support historic or cultural FN place names;
  3. The Naming Committee is empowered to establish a reserve name list, yet there is no policy direction for the Naming Committee to research FN place names that are historic and culturally relevant.

If Edmonton is serious about reconciliation should that not be reflected in policy? If we are serious about reconciliation, should we not demand that it be reflected in City policies?

If we were to address these process shortcomings, naming Edmonton could be an act of reconciliation.