British Columbia

What's in a name? The (mostly) true story of Ha Ling Peak

Though calls to name an iconic Rocky Mountain peak in Ha Ling's honour go back as far as his legendary 1886 ascent, the name "Chinaman's Peak" stuck for more than a century, even as the term came to be seen as a racial slur. An Absolutely Canadian documentary on the peak explores the story — and the politics of place names more generally.

Absolutely Canadian documentary explores the politics of place names

Roger Mah Poy was the main voice behind the movement to rename Ha Ling Peak in 1997, which had been known for more than a century as "Chinaman's Peak." (Bryce Zimmerman)

Most longtime residents of Canmore, Alta., can tell you some version of the story of how Ha Ling Peak got its name.

The legend goes that, in 1896, a Canadian Pacific Railway cook by the name of Ha Ling was bet $50 that he couldn't summit the northwestern peak of Mount Lawrence Grassi — a prominent peak that overlooks the mountain town — in under 10 hours.

He left town early in the morning and was back by lunchtime. But nobody believed his story, so he took them back up the 2,407-metre summit to show them a flag he had planted. He even planted a second one to prove his point, one large enough to be seen from town.

The townsfolk were so impressed that they named the peak after him — but not his given name. Instead, they called it "Chinaman's Peak."

Mount Lawrence Grassi as seen from the Bow Valley. Ha Ling Peak, the most prominent peak, is on the right. (Matthew Soo/Google Earth)

Bryce Zimmerman, the cinematographer and producer of a new documentary called Ha Ling Peak, says it's a story he's heard countless times.

"Obviously the details of this story are kind of vague and contested, because it is a folk story," Zimmerman said.

Though calls to name the peak in Ling's honour go back as far as his legendary ascent, the name Chinaman's Peak stuck for more than a century, even as the term fell out of common usage and came to be seen as a racial slur.

Watch Ha Ling Peak on CBC Gem:

Winds of change

It's largely due to the efforts of one man that the name came to be changed at all.

In the late 1990s, Roger Mah Poy became the voice of a movement in Canmore and nearby Calgary to rename the peak. A schoolteacher living in the Bow Valley at the time, Poy says in the documentary that he always felt welcome in Canmore.

But for him, the shame of the name of one of the valley's most iconic landmarks loomed over the town as large as the peak itself.

"'Chinaman' was used to degrade the Chinese people at the time [of the peak's naming] by not using their given names," an emotional Poy says in the documentary.

"For this to continue in the 20th century — I was not going to allow that."

The politics of place names

After months of heated public debate, the name was finally changed in 1997. But even though Ha Ling Peak is now the official name on the books, the spectre of the previous name lingers.

"People are still using the name 'Chinaman's Peak,'" Zimmerman said. "It's definitely generational."

Some argue the name change erases a piece of local history in the name of political correctness — not unlike the debate currently raging around the removal of a statue of Canada's first prime minister in Victoria.

But for Zimmerman, it's not that simple.

"By holding on to a name, all you're doing is holding on to one version of history," he said.

"You're not necessarily saying that that is the history. You're saying that's a version of history."

Banff's Tunnel Mountain, named for a tunnel that never came to be. The Stoney Nakoda Nation has been trying for two years to have its name changed to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain. (Harvey Locke)

The process of renaming and recontextualizing history is always ongoing; Zimmerman points to the debate around the name of nearby Tunnel Mountain, in Banff.

Railway surveyors once considered building a tunnel through the mountain but abandoned the plan. The name, though, stuck.

A local First Nation, the Stoney Nakoda, have been lobbying to change the mountain's name to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain, a translation of their traditional name for it.

Despite two years of efforts, the colonial name remains the official one.

"The concept of naming is political," Zimmerman said. "It's obvious that it's political when you try to take a name away — how much people care about it."

"In looking [in the documentary] at these traditions of how we name things and who gets to name things and the power dynamics behind that, we really wanted to peel back the layers."

Ha Ling Peak is part of the CBC documentary series Absolutely Canadian available on CBC Gem.