Vancouver city council gives the green light for project to diversify street names
Andrea Reimer is the Vancouver city councillor who brought forward a motion, called, The 150+ Place Naming Project, which aims to bring more diversity to place names in the city. Reimer came up with the idea after hearing from people in her community who feel uncomfortable living on streets that share a name with controversial figures such as Joseph Trutch. She saw the impact these changes can make after a street was renamed to recognize a Chinese-Canadian woman last year. Reimer spoke to Checkup host Duncan McCue about her motion.
On why this motion is important:
We've had different cultural communities come to us and want to see their pioneer's place names reflected in the streets and buildings and plazas in Vancouver. About 90 per cent of the place names in Vancouver are named for men, and of the 10 per cent that aren't, many of those were simply honoured for being the relatives of men. We were the first city to bring forward the Year of Reconciliation in 2013, and that work has really taught us that the history of Indigenous Peoples has been erased by colonization. That lack of visibility - this erasure - has been a deep wound for our local First Nations. We're really looking at how to bring back the reality that they inhabited this land for thousands of years before colonization.
On the steps to making the motion a reality:
We have quite a number of what we call civic assets in the city of Vancouver. That could be a street, a building, a plaza or a community garden, that don't have names at all. Or they have names like West Annex or East Annex, which are actually two of the buildings around city hall. And there's an opportunity there to take the names of pioneers from the South Asian community, the Chinese community, the Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese communities, as well as women, who've made significant contributions to the building of Vancouver over many years, and get those onto these unnamed assets. Also, the motion that passed proposes getting Indigenous place names back on the land where they belong. And then the third piece, which is the challenging one - the subject that you're talking about today - is to have a discussion, not about which streets to rename or which things to rename, but to talk about what is in a name. What are the circumstances, if any, in which we would take names off the land. I should say a fundamental truth about colonization is that we've done this before. When Europeans arrived here they took all the names off the land and then started putting new ones on. So it's not that we've never done this, but I think many of us view that as a great injustice.
On the decision to replace a name:
I think it really does need to be a discussion that's not necessarily led by government. I think it's very much a discussion rooted in community. I got this wonderful set of letters from a Grade 5/6 class that had used this as their current affair topic for the week. They expressed a lot of support for the idea. There were lots of First Nations and Chinese kids in the class who felt very excited about the opportunity to see people that look like them reflected on the streets. But their one concern was renaming their school. They have memories associated with the name of their school and they were concerned that if the school name changed that those memories might be less meaningful for them. So I think they totally encapsulated the challenge of that discussion, and why it's so important to have people from the communities that have been most affected by the erasing of their histories leading that discussion.
On place names with a controversial history:
The one that I hear most often with Indigenous communities is Trutch Street. Trutch was a lieutenant-governor in British Columbia whose writings went well beyond racism into a kind of an extermination lens around Indigenous Peoples. He compared them to dogs. It's hard to imagine that that name sits on our streets in Vancouver in an era of reconciliation. I think the worst part about it is that the terminus of that street happens to be the Musqueam Indian Reserve. We also have a rock in Stanely Park called Siwash Rock. The translation of the word Siwash is not a word that I could say on the radio. Perhaps the early settlers thought they were commemorating something important to Indigenous communities, but this is an example of where even in trying they managed to get it wrong. So maybe we need to have a discussion about that.
On the backlash to the motion:
I have had people suggest to me all through the reconciliation work we've done at the city that there's a sort of philosophy that you should - and I'm quoting here – "let sleeping dogs lie." But the challenge is those dogs aren't lying. We see the trauma of colonization: residential schools, ripping the names off the land, erasing the history of Indigenous people. Those dogs keep creating trauma in the modern day. Whether that be the number of children in care and the outcomes for them that are just appalling, or the Pickton murders here in Vancouver, you can't just ignore the past. The only way through it is to find a healing pathway and I think this discussion is the way to start that healing.
On why the symbolism of changing a name is important:
In 2013 we took this step forward in Vancouver proclaiming it a Year of Reconciliation. As someone who's been a very strong activist out there in the community, I view marches and rallies as a more direct route to getting action. The idea that writing some words on a sheet of paper and reading them out as a proclamation would make change in the world… I was skeptical. And yet, I've seen the power of that. You need to make the space for Aboriginal people to tell the truth about what happened to them and the traumas that were inflicted. We need to make the space for non-Aboriginal people to move forward to acknowledge that truth, that they've heard, and then we can move forward. And I think that place naming is part of that continuum. I think as long as we don't have those place names back on the land, and that erasure still exists, it's very hard to believe that our policy will be able to see Aboriginal people as fully visible on the land either.
On advice for other cities also looking to make these changes:
I have heard from quite a number of councillors across the country. My advice to people: first off, it's fantastic to hear people willing to wade into this. It is challenging and it opens up a door through which fear and racism can walk through. My advice to them is: don't make this your first step. The first step really needs to be for people to hear the truth. You need to make the space for Aboriginal people. In our case, for Chinese people, Japanese people, South Asian people, who all suffered injustices through colonization and the impact of the dominant culture on their culture. You need to make the space for them to speak the truth. Because until that truth is understood it's very hard to understand why this is the next logical step to be taking.
Andrea Reimer's comments have been edited and condensed. This online segment was prepared by Ieva Lucs.