North·YUKON VOTES 2021

Party leaders all support erasing Indigenous slur from 4 Yukon place names

Yukon’s political party leaders say that an offensive word in the Yukon government’s official names for four places in the territory should be removed.

Place names in Yukon include derogatory term for an Indigenous woman

A censored screenshot of a Yukon government map marking S***w Point in Yukon. (Steve Silva/CBC/Government of Yukon)

Warning: This article discusses an offensive slur. CBC has chosen to only use it once for context and censor it in later references.

Yukon's political party leaders all say they want to remove an offensive word from four official place names in the territory.

Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon, Liberal Leader Sandy Silver, and NDP Leader Kate White all say that if elected, they will do what they can to help make the change.

The term "squaw" is a derogatory way of referring to an Indigenous woman.

The Yukon government's gazetteer lists four place names that contain the word: two places referred to as S***w Creek, S***w Range, and S***w Point.

The latter is on the Carcross/Tagish First Nation's settlement land next to Taku Arm in southern Yukon. 

"It is offensive, yes, to our matriarchs and our women of the community — and any woman, really, of native origin," Lynda Dickson, the First Nation's haa shaa du hen (chief), said of the names during a February interview.

The names were adopted between 1941 and 1956, according to a Yukon government database.

Brian Groves, the senior manager of heritage within the Yukon government's Department of Tourism and Culture, said in a February interview that the government doesn't have any information in the database about how the four names were determined.

A screenshot of a Yukon government map marking S***w Creek and S***w Range in Yukon. The portion of the creek at the bottom of the image, in B.C., is incorrectly labelled — in that province, the body of water has been renamed Dollis Creek. (Steve Silva/CBC/Government of Yukon)

He suggested contacting the federal government, which used to handle matters regarding place names before the Yukon government began doing so in the late '80s.

A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada said the department has no information on the names.

"I think we recognize that there may be ... official names that are offensive," Groves said.

The territorial government does not initiate changes to such names, he said, but people can send applications for that to the department.

As part of the process, the government's toponymist consults with Yukon First Nations and then passes along information they collect for the Yukon Geographical Place Names Board to review.

Any recommendations from the board go to the minister of the department for their potential approval.

No one from the board made themselves available to be interviewed for this story.

Groves said that, as of March 29, there was no indication that anyone has made an application for these four names to be changed.

Campaigning party leaders weigh in

"I'm disappointed and surprised to hear that they're still used officially," said Currie Dixon, leader of the Yukon Party. "They're so egregious and so inappropriate that we need to act quickly."

He said that a Yukon Party government would instruct the board to change the names.

"In the interim, we should remove them, as a starting place," Dixon said.

"If there needs to be an exercise of seeking out geographical place names that are offensive, then we'd be happy to undertake that."

Liberal Leader Sandy Silver, along with the other leaders, said he was only made aware of the names when a CBC News journalist asked about them on Thursday.

"It's deplorable. It's unbelievable," he said of the names. "It's definitely not something that our government would stand by now that we know that these names are there."

Silver said if re-elected, he will make sure that they are removed.

NDP Leader Kate White agreed that it's time to drop those names.

"That's a brutal reality, right, and it's a really ugly look at our past, you know, and by that I mean our colonial past," she said.

"It's not appropriate now — it wasn't appropriate then, but it's definitely not appropriate now."

White said the Yukon government should not be the one to propose name changes, but it should look for problematic place names, then notify the First Nations whose lands contain them.

B.C. rescinded 2 places names

S***w Range and another S***w Creek are located close together west of Highway 3 at the boundary with B.C.

Those places are in both B.C. and Yukon, but their names were rescinded more than two decades ago, at least in the province. The B.C. portion of the body of water is now called Dollis Creek, according to the BC Geographical Names Office.

As Yukon's place name database's entries for the two locations describe, the names are "considered derogatory."

"That's a hard lesson, right, to know that Yukon hasn't kept pace with, you know, what is right," said White.

Carcross/Tagish First Nation Chief Lynda Dickson said that regardless of the origins of these names, they're not appropriate.

"It's 2021. I mean, there's no need for that," she said.

Dickson said her First Nation's government has been working on a request over the past year or two to change the name of the area on her First Nation's land.

'It's 2021. I mean, there's no need for that,' said Chief Lynda Dickson of Carcross/Tagish First Nation. (Chris Windeyer/CBC)

She said she has heard the area called S***w Point, among other names, over the years.

Elders have renamed the area Gaanuulaa ("Jack Pine Point" in English), which Dickson said she believes is a Tagish-language name and the original name of the area.

That's the name the First Nation will request, according to Dickson.

"It is important for us to reclaim traditional names officially," she said.

The area in question has cabins, shower facilities, a kitchen, and internet access, and the First Nation's plan is to develop it more. It's used for camping, meetings, and being on the land, among other things.

"We're trying to use it for people that are struggling in life," Dickson said. "We're really trying to champion the area."

S***w Point is called Gaanuulaa ('Jack Pine Point' in English) by Carcross/Tagish First Nation. The area is used for camping, among other things. (Submitted by the Government of Carcross/Tagish First Nation)

The other S***w Creek is about 60 kilometres northwest of Stewart Crossing, on the traditional territory of Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin First Nation.

Wayne Potoroka, a spokesperson for the First Nation, said in a Feb. 9 email that Chief Roberta Joseph "has enquired with our Lands folks about requesting a change."

The two other areas — the range and creek that are at the B.C border — are in the traditional territory of Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. No one from the First Nation was made available for an interview.

Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek said she believes the names should be changed.

Kluane Adamek is the Yukon regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations. She says the names should be changed. (Steve Silva/CBC)

"We need to be really mindful about the language that we use, and so let's make sure that we're taking into consideration how these words may have made people feel," she said in a March interview.

A federal government website lists the offensive term in 21 currently official place names in two territories and several provinces.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Silva

Video journalist

Steve Silva is a video journalist for CBC News based in Whitehorse. He has journalism degrees from Ryerson University and Columbia University. So far, he has filed reports from five provinces and two territories in Canada. He can be reached at: steve.silva@cbc.ca.

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