Petition to change B.C. village of Moricetown to traditional name

More than 120 years after a Roman Catholic missionary named Moricetown after himself, a petition is circulating to change the name of the northern B.C. village to its traditional title: Witset.

Moricetown's namesake was known for his fear tactics and punitive measures

The Bulkley River Canyon at Moricetown along Highway 16. Moricetown is a Wet'suwet'en village located halfway between Smithers and Terrace. The views of the surrounding rivers and mountains are a draw for tourists, anglers and photographers. (Ash Kelly)

A Wet'suwet'en woman is leading the charge to revert the name of her village, Moricetown, to its traditional name, Witset.

The village, located halfway between Smithers and Terrace, was given its current namesake by Father Adrian Gabriel Morice who arrived in the Bulkley Valley in the late 1880s as a missionary for the Catholic church.

"Everybody is starting to see how Father Morice was back in the day; a missionary. [We are] reading about him in history books about how he really was and how he bullied our people into Catholicism," said Wanda Nikal who is leading the charge to gather as many signatures from the community as she can.

Other villages in the region — including Lax Kw'alaams, Kitwanga and Gitanyow — have either maintained or reverted to First Nations place names, though many have been phoneticized to be easier to write in English.

The idea to petition for the change came to Nikal when the band started developing information brochures for tourists to learn about the area and its history, which caught Nikal's eye. 

"Even growing up, I thought 'Why are we Moricetown? What's our traditional name?'" she said.

Now, she knows the answer to that question. "Witset means first or before anyone. The people of the first village," said Nikal.

She has already tried the old name on for size. When organizing Moricetown's annual sports day, Nikal used the traditional name to promote events. 

"I wrote 'Witset Annual Sports Day' and I got raves, from elders especially," she told Carolina De Ryk, host of Daybreak North.

Ruled with fear

Morice was French Roman Catholic, an historian, author, ethnographer and linguist who took it upon himself to learn Indigenous languages which helped him take confessions from converted First Nations.

He was known as a rebel within the church, earned terrible grades in school and had trouble obeying his superiors. 

Father Adrien Gabriel Morice was a Catholic missionary working in the Skeena and Bulkley River areas of western British Columbia during the late 1800s. He named Moricetown, Morice Mountain, Morice River, and Morice Falls all after himself, according to historians. (Wikimedia Commons)

"The government day school here in Moricetown, Catholic schools, he was part of that. He was one of the first ones to come to the area and try and change our people's belief in tradition and culture," said Nikal.

Morice was also known to use fear tactics on Indigenous people and was famously difficult to work with as attested to by his peers, who requested reassignment rather than work with him.

"After the [Indigenous people] formally converted to Catholicism, Morice still used fear and an arbitrary, punitive approach," wrote David Mulhall, who authored Will to power: the missionary career of Father Morice.

"Morice's linguistic prowess and his successful intimidation of both his fellow priests and his native converts had enabled him within a few years to exercise a clerical hegemony in British Columbia's northern Interior."

He was admonished by the church for naming the village after himself, according to Mulhall.

Still, Morice went on to name a number of natural features after himself, including Morice Falls, Morice Lake, Morice River and Morice Mountain.

Simple change

For now, the petition only tackles the name of the village, which band manager Lucy Gagnon said is a good start.

"We've been in support of it; it's just no one's driven it," she said, adding she's not heard from anyone opposed to the change.

Gagnon spoke with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada about what it would take to change the name, and the process seemed relatively simple.

"They said we just have to advise them, and we do it on a local level," explained Gagnon.

With files from CBC Radio One's Daybreak North