The ongoing onomastic revolution in British Columbia reached a new high-water mark this week when a Squamish elder proposed attaching the old Squamish name “X̱wáýx̱way” to Stanley Park, and B.C. officials practically drowned him out praising the idea:
B.C. Tourism Minister Kevin Kreuger immediately endorsed the idea of putting an aboriginal name alongside the current name. “Most people this day and age think that is the right thing and a pretty cool thing to do,” he said Friday in an interview.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson added his unequivocal support. “It is an important thing to acknowledge our history in the name of that place for thousands of years prior to settlers coming here,” he told reporters.
Somebody has probably already explained to these gentlemen, who seized with such terrier eagerness on an apparent opportunity for zero-cost repentance, that “X̱wáýx̱way” was actually the name of one Squamish group of longhouses that occupied a corner of the park. Somewhere between two and a zillion other Coast Salish First Nations have claims to at least parts of the territory we call Stanley Park. Even if the park hadn’t been occupied by multiple peoples at the time of first contact, it would be even harder than usual to retroactively apply concepts of ownership in such a complicated and fluid pre-contact socioeconomic setting—one characterized by frequent, nimble maritime migration and by various historically unrecoverable folkways and easements that allowed neighbouring nations to get along peacefully, more or less, in close and sometimes overlapping quarters.
When Lord Stanley dedicated the park named after him, he declared that it was “for the use and enjoyment of peoples of all colours, creeds, and customs, for all time.” Fine words; yet, taking the aboriginal point of view, they are wicked and imperialist, mere noise designed to provide ethical cover for a revolting crime. By what right did Stanley consecrate that land, or any land not personally his own, to the use and enjoyment of mankind in general? Why, by none that we would now recognize, any more than you would accept such a declaration concerning your living room. Squamish people still lived in the longhouses of X̱wáýx̱way when Stanley spoke; beginning almost immediately, their dwellings were knocked down on various pretexts, and they were forced onto the reserves.
But we are all common beneficiaries of imperialism, we still hold to Lord Stanley’s humanist ideals despite the brutish manner in which they have often been applied, and we’re not going to give Stanley Park back to the Squamish and the Musqueam and the Tsleil-Waututh unless a few judges turn hydrophobic. (Technically it is leased federal property, and B.C.’s neither to return nor rename.) It is hard to see how an apology in the form of some bilingual signage could amount to anything but cheap grace, crossbred with historical inaccuracy and smugness. One wishes that the battle to document and protect threatened aboriginal languages—like, say, Squamish, for example—received a hundredth of the attention and support that stupid marketing gestures command with such ease.
What’s increasingly clear from the West Coast vogue for geographic revisionism is that the name of British Columbia itself cannot remain unmolested much longer. It can’t be denied that it is a little generic, old-fashioned, and awkward. “Columbia” sometimes having been used to denote the entire New World, “British Columbia” could have been the name of any particular British possession therein, or indeed of the whole of British North America. The giddy excitement displayed by Robertson and Kreuger at the thought of diluting Stanley Park’s brand shows how politicians would react, at least instinctively, to a strong renaming campaign. (Kreuger sounds particularly like a fructose-addled fourteen-year-old in his quote.) They are constitutionally incapable of resisting a good monument-building scheme, or anything else they will be able to pat themselves on the back for in retirement.
Truth be told, the renaming effort is already underway, on a cottage-industry scale; it awaits only a widely acceptable, popular choice. The good news, for those who dread the idea, is that the proposed alternatives so far are almost all unspeakably awful. For now, the sage, sensible spirit of Thomas D’Arcy McGee stands guard over B.C., but his voice grows a little weaker every year.