British Columbia·Analysis

'Who owns this city?': why debates around Vancouver place names are divisive

The intervals in which this discussion happens in British Columbia are shortening, and will continue to shorten.

People play in McBride park named for a premier who said 'we stand for a white British Columbia'

A street sign reading 'Trutch Street'.
Joseph Trutch, B.C.'s first lieutenant-governor, made a variety of unilateral decisions to reduce the rights and land claims of B.C.'s Indigenous communities. (Christer Waara/CBC)

On the surface, Stanley Park's Siwash Rock and the Vancouver Art Gallery's north plaza don't have much in common, figuratively or physically. 

Yet, both could have their names changed in the near future, a result of local politicians wanting to advance reconciliation with Indigenous communities. 

"What we've heard very strongly from aboriginal communities [is] a very important thing for them is becoming visible in their own territory again," said Councillor Andrea Reimer. 

Reimer voted in favour of a motion Wednesday to work with the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and provincial government to find a new name for the well-trafficked art gallery plaza to "ensure the work of reconciliation remains visible."

The Park Board will vote on exploring a name change for Siwash Rock later this month.

And by the end of the year, city staff will report back on another motion Reimer put forward in March on place names, which among other things looks to "determine the circumstances when, if ever, a street or public asset name can be replaced." 

This isn't the first time people in the Lower Mainland have experienced a variation of this discussion. In 2014, New Westminster school trustees chose not to keep former premier John Robson — of Robson Street, Robson Square, and Mount Robson — on the name of a school that was rebuilt, because of his policies toward Indigenous people and Chinese immigrants. 

What's clear is the intervals in which this discussion happens in British Columbia are shortening, and will continue to shorten. 

"Most of the names of streets and buildings in Vancouver all showed up in in about a 30-year period. They reflect a very narrow period," said Reimer. 

"You needed to be white, male and a property owner to vote, and have any power ... so there's a pretty narrow band of Vancouverites, in a pretty narrow band of time."

The Vancouver Art Gallery's north plaza could be named to acknowledge the city's three local First Nations after a motion was passed in council this week. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Debate grows across North America

Our province has not had widespread debates over past figures, in the same way Ontario has over schools named after Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, to say nothing of discussions in the United States over Confederate statues.

Put simply, most of Vancouver's streets and schools and parks were named during a period of time when most leaders of this province were doing everything in their power to keep it as white as possible — and our architecture reflects that.

People play in McBride park, named for the premier who said "we stand for a white British Columbia, a white land, and a white Empire."

They learn at John Oliver Secondary School, named for the premier who successfully pushed the federal government for immigration legislation that would "prevent the peaceful penetration of Asiatics into British Columbia."

And they walk down Trutch Street, named for B.C.'s first lieutenant-governor, a man who reduced the size of reserves established by Gov. James Douglas by up to 92 per cent.

One could go on. However, the sheer breadth of places we've named for historical figures who discriminated against people of Indigenous or Chinese descent means debate is inevitable, given the current political climate. 

Richard McBride, B.C.'s first premier after political parties were adopted, once said "we stand for a white British Columbia, a white land, and a white Empire." (Christer Waara/CBC)

'We're a speck in time'

Longtime former school board trustee Patti Bacchus says there were periodic requests from parents to change the names of schools — particularly General Gordon Elementary, named for a colonial-era British Army officer — and hopes future trustees will consider changes in the future.

"The settler names have been here for almost 200 years. We're a speck in time, and we need to be respectful," she said.

"Because one group of people named something at one point, that doesn't mean it can't be revisited."

Michael Kluckner, founding president of the Heritage Vancouver Society, thinks debate over the legacies of people from B.C.'s past is healthy. But he worries about the repercussions of changing names, even for something like Trutch Street.

"He was probably the most odious racist who ever had a position of authority and power in B.C. From my point of view, he did a number of things, including being this terrible racist," he said.

"[But] can you not use that as a way from teaching what actually went on? If his name disappears, does it not become something that is much harder to teach historically?"

Reimer knows no matter what the advice staff provide on how the city should approach these issues in the future, it will rankle some.

"There is a deep current in this debate, and that current I would characterize as who owns the city?" she said.

"It's the same debate we hear over bike lanes, it's the debate when we close down a section of street for a block party, or a permanent plaza, it's that literal question of who owns, who decides?

"It's why this debate is so emotional, because it's really asking a deeper question."


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.