Councillor faces criticism for suggesting city choose easier Indigenous street names

A councillor's suggestion that the city choose Indigenous names for streets and neighbourhoods that are easier to pronounce and spell was met with criticism from colleagues Tuesday. Coun. Bryan Anderson told council the city should consider using easier Indigenous names for new streets and neighbourhoods.

Indigenous languages were here first, Mayor Don Iveson says in response to Bryan Anderson's comments

Mayor Don Iveson and Chief Billy Morin at a naming ceremony in February. ((Lydia Neufeld/CBC))

A councillor's suggestion that the city choose Indigenous names for streets and neighbourhoods that are easier to pronounce and spell was met with criticism from colleagues Tuesday.

Coun. Bryan Anderson told council the city should consider using easier Indigenous names for new streets and neighbourhoods.

He asked if the city's naming committee could look at the "usability" of names by choosing different ones or using literal translations.

A name such as Kaskitayo works but Maskekosihk Trail — pronounced Muss-Kay-Go-See — causes problems, he said.

Anderson suggested the city consider "the possibility of using literal translations or phonetic spelling, allowing Cree names that are phonetically able to be spelled or pronounced, and using the literal translation when the name is extremely difficult or impossible to spell unless you rote memorize it."

Later Tuesday, Mayor Don Iveson said such questions are best left to the city's naming committee. But he said using Indigenous names is "a significant act" of reconciliation.

"I think it's really important to remember that the language that's actually precedent here — that's been spoken here for thousands of years — those languages are Indigenous languages and in particular, Cree," Iveson said.

"In the gesture of working to acknowledge that the language of this place historically was a different language, that's how we recognize and decolonize what is otherwise a narrative of conquest — and language is part of conquest."

Driving out Indigenous language was one of the reasons for the residential school system, Iveson said — "to excise cultural practices and languages from Indigenous peoples."

Coun. Ben Henderson also said he has "some trouble" with Anderson's remarks.

"Frankly, the First Nations names were here before we were, so arguably we should be learning to translate it the other way," Henderson said.

"And I think going down that road is part of the journey that we have to go, if we truly want to take reconciliation seriously.

"We learn all sorts of names. A lot of our language has come from other languages. We've been able to adapt to it, and I think it's probably time we learned to adapt — as the newcomers — to the names that were here before us."

The city has been giving some streets and neighbourhoods Indigenous names as part of its path toward reconciliation and to recognize and celebrate centuries of Aboriginal history.

In February, dignitaries gathered at city hall to announce that a section of 23rd Avenue would be renamed Maskekosihk Trail.

The Cree word means "people of the land of medicine."

Anderson said the name is problematic.

Coun. Bryan Anderson wants First Nations street and neighbourhood names put through a "usability lens". (Nola Keeler)

"Spell it on a legal document quickly," he said. "Why would we create situations where people are going to be forced to struggle when there are some usability solutions?

"One is, go ahead and use the names when the phonetic spelling is easy to pronounce, or use literal translations for streets and neighbourhoods, which are used by thousands of people every day."

No need to 'bend over backward'

Anderson pointed to some names he said were not difficult to spell or pronounce, such as Kaskitayo, as an example of an Indigenous name that did work.

Kaskitayo is a residential area in the city's southwest. The name is derived from the Cree word for "blackmud creek."

Anderson said he's not asking that any current names be changed.

"That's why I'm saying consider these things when selecting names, and that's all," he said. "Things that are in place are in place. If we can have a more usable name and still acknowledge an Aboriginal place or name or person, let's do so."

Asked if he was worried about political backlash for bringing this up at council, Anderson replied: "Obviously not."

He said Edmontonians probably struggled with some Ukrainian names when they were first introduced as street or neighbourhood names.

"We learned and we may do exactly the same thing," he said.

But he still wants to see the naming committee consider his concerns.

"We don't need to bend over backward to be authentic if there is a more usable alternative that accomplishes the same thing."

Henderson pointed out that the naming committee is the only committee that doesn't need city council's approval for its decisions.

"I think we need to trust them to do their job," he said.

About the Author

Nola Keeler

Nola Keeler is an award-winning journalist who has worked with CBC in Whitehorse, Yukon and Edmonton since 2000. She has worked as a host, reporter, news reader and producer for CBC. Send story ideas to nola.keeler@cbc.ca.