As It Happens·Q&A

Mi'kmaw writer says it's about time Halifax get rid of 'Micmac' on street signs

Rebecca Thomas is tired of seeing a bastardized version of her people's name all over her city. 

Halifax regional council has agreed to request a report on outdated colonial term at several public places

Rebecca Thomas is Halifax's former poet laureate, a Mi'kmaw author, Indigenous support advisor for Nova Scotia Community College and former senior consultant for diversity and inclusion with the province. (Erica Penton)

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Rebecca Thomas is tired of seeing a bastardized version of her people's name all over her city. 

That's why she's glad the Halifax regional council has unanimously endorsed a motion for a staff report to review the use of the word "Micmac" on some municipal streets and facilities.

The word — which is also plastered all over private businesses in Nova Scotia — is considered an outdated, colonial spelling of "Mi'kmaq," an Indigenous people originally from areas now known as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., Newfoundland and the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. 

Mi'kmaq — pronounced meeg-maw, rather than the anglicized mick-mack — refers to the people as a whole. The singular form, Mi'kmaw, is also used as an adjective and in reference to the language. 

Thomas, a Mi'kmaw writer and activist who was once Halifax's poet laureate, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why she thinks it's time for the update. Here is part of that conversation. 

Rebecca, when you travel around your community — Halifax, Dartmouth — how often do you see these outdated spellings and pronunciations?

A fair amount, especially when I'm out walking my dog in the areas that I go. There's lots of street names, there's lake names, there's private business names, there's athletic club names — all with the spelling "Micmac."

How does it make you feel when you see that spelling and all those names?

Just exasperated. [We've known] for a long time that this is incorrect, and yet here it is. And folks say, "Oh, you know, this is ... something that's been around for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. To change it would be such a shame!"

And I can't help but thinking like, well, we've been around for 12,000 years, so it would be kind of nice if you respected that legacy.

We take nations' names and we slap them on things, and then we forget the nation.- Rebecca Thomas, writer 

What do you think should happen? What would you like to see changed?

Just kind of removing that spelling. And there are lots of other ways in which you can name streets and honour people and whatnot without maintaining this long standing misnomer.

Do you want to see ... [Mi'kmaq] on those signs?

Not necessarily. Because I think that switching it that way won't necessarily change the way people reference or pronounce the street.

We have lots of Mi'kmaw people, African Nova Scotian people, that we can look at naming [things after].

And we can go beyond that. Colonization and the expansion of Canada has done terrible things to us and people of colour. But they've also done lots of horrible things to the flora and fauna, you know, that existed here long before they did.

So what are you suggesting?

I am suggesting not having Micmac, not having Mi'kmaq, but perhaps working with the community to find a name that's appropriate or honouring something people tend to forget that have been impacted by the expansion of Halifax and Canadian cities. 

Micmac Boulevard is the name of the street adjacent to the Mic Mac mall. The city of Halifax is considering changing the name, which is a misspelled and mispronounced version of 'Mi'kmaq.' (Robert Short/CBC)

There are many examples of place names in Canada, around the world, that are corruption of words in other languages. In Canada, we have corruption of French and English, of Gaelic. Why is this different?

Because it's a people. It's not even just a word in our language. Like, it's us as a people.

The people who have lots of power were the ones who decided those names and decided to use the wrong name and decided to kind of go with it. And so you have to look at the kind of imbalances of power in that way as well.

France and England colonized North America the way that they did. They had a lot of power.

We, as Mi'kmaq ... had this kind of nation in this territory that was taken away, and then who we are is being, you know, misspoken under the guise of honouring. And I find that to be patronizing.

What do Mi'kmaq say about being in the community and seeing this "Micmac" everywhere they go?

It depends. I can't speak on behalf of, like all my people. But, you know, there [are] pieces that are generational.

My father, he's 77. He's a residential school survivor. And for a very long time, he said the word "Micmac" because that's how he grew up being called.

I'm not in a place where I can tell my dad and elders, like, "Oh, you're saying your nation wrong." But understanding that that's what he was called when he was growing up in residential school, and that's what stuck.

But I can say for me and many people like me and of my generation are tired of being, I guess, patronized.

But why did Micmac even become the name of all these locations and places?

That I don't know. You see a lot of Indigenous words in names that get taken and called places. Like, when you say "Toronto, Ontario, Canada," you are speaking various Indigenous languages. Ottawa is a nation. We've named cars Pontiac and Winnebago.

We take nations' names and we slap them on things. And then we forget the nation. And we forget the people that were killed or removed or displaced or colonized. But, you know, our kind of name lives on and takes on this completely other thing no longer tied to us. And it's upsetting when we are still here to see that.

Thomas says she hopes private businesses like the Mic Mac Mall will follow the city's lead and change their names. (Robert Short/CBC)

So this effort now to have these changed, what input will Mi'kmaq have in the decisions of how these places in the states will be renamed?

I hope it changes and I hope my people are consulted. But when it comes to the actual power to change those names, we don't necessarily have a lot.

But the council does. I mean, the city does. And so they can change those names. But what about Mic Mac Mall?

Now, that's a private organization. So I'm hoping that if the municipality decides to change something, you know, and to set that stance, then I'm hoping Mic Mac Mall will change as well. But that's private industry.

There are lots of private organizations as well. And I would love to see them change, but I don't think council can force a private company to change their name.

Well, they've had a lot of opportunities to change it, haven't they?

Yes, [the mall] had this kind of multimillion-dollar renovation piece that they did ... and they didn't include their signage, I guess.

So they did a multi-million dollar renovation and didn't change the sign?

Yeah, it's still Mic Mac Mall.

And it's really the only mall in that region. So it's not like people are going to forget where it is all of a sudden because the signage has changed.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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