It seems in Canada there is always a debate going on over using the most politically correct name for places. Currently this is popping up in Vancouver around Stanley Park. The gist of the debate is the Squamish First Nation is asking Stanley Park be re-named Xwayxway, to honour the village that was once located on the peninsula. This is a contentious issue for two reasons. First, there is a precedent for re-naming places to reflect their First Nations roots. This is the politically correct way of dealing with the sense of liberal guilt so easily invoked when the spectre of settler/government/church treatment of First Nations over the past centuries is summoned. In a number of cases this is the correct action, but in the case of Stanley Park it is not the appropriate response because reason number two – since 1888 Vancouver boosters have sold Stanley Park to tourists. Asking for Stanley Park to be re-named Xwayxway Park is paramount to asking Lake Louise to be re-named Ho-run-num-nay, or what the Stoney Nakoda called the lake. It would not fly. It would confuse tourists to no end. It would be a public relations nightmare.
In the Bow Valley there is an excellent, and recent, example of an instance when re-naming a place in the tourist area was justified and successful. There is a peak overlooking the town of Canmore, Alberta located on far west end of Mount Lawrence Grassi and across White Man’s Gap from E.E.O.R (East End of Rundle) on the Rundle Massive that from 1896 to 1998 was named Chinaman’s Peak. Not the most culturally or racially sensitive name in 1886 or 1998, and made worse because since 1896 the name of the Chinese man the peak was called after has been known.
In 1896 a Chinese man working as a cook at the Oskaloosa Hotel accepted a $50 bet he could not climb the peak to the east of White Man’s Gap in under 10 hours. To win the bet, he had to prove he had made the ascent a flag would be planted at the summit. The man left just after breakfast on a Saturday morning and was back in time for lunch. Unable to see the flag with their field glasses, the Chinese man climbed the peak a second time with a larger flag to prove he won the bet. The second ascent took longer, but with a twelve-foot flag planted in the summit there was no denying he had made it from valley to summit and back in under 6 hours. So the peak was named after the man, but instead of becoming Ha Ling Peak in 1896 a derogatory slang term was used and for over 100 years it was called Chinaman’s Peak. What Ha Ling accomplished is still a remarkable feat of mountain climbing. Even from the present trail head located part way up the slope it is a solid 3 hour return trip – often longer given the steep terrain, continuous switch-backs, and steep scramble above the tree line to get up to the saddle and summit.
All self-respecting Canmorites know the story – and a smaller and smaller proportion of the population remember the huge debate that broke out in the early 1990s when the local Chinese community asked the name be officially changed to remove the racist term and honour the individual the story was about. This was debate that went on for years – a local hiking book from 1994 recounting the story went so far as to state “no overzealous human rights activists are complaining about the name.”* The advocates for the name change had strong argument for re-naming Chinaman’s Peak a century after Ha Ling climbed it record time. The term is offensive and reeked of a time when racism towards Chinese people was ripe throughout Canada. In a coal mining town like Canmore where Chinese has always made a living along side the non-Chinese residents, where the name “Ha Ling” was part of the story of how Chinaman’s Peak got its name, it was a grievous oversight the peak continued to be a reminder of past insensitivities. The other factor in favour of the name change was the peak was not the postcard mountain for the town. It was, and remains, a popular hike but the mountain around which the town and its tourism efforts were fixed was the Three Sisters. Changing the name of a peak on Mount Lawrence Grassi would annoy locals, but it would also correct a historic wrong without impacting the booster efforts that were turning Canmore from nearly dead coal mining town without an active mine, into a tourist and weekender destination to complement Banff.
A decision was reached in 1997 and in 1998 the peak was officially re-named Ha Ling Peak. Today, residents who lived in Canmore when the debate occurred will use the two names interchangeably, but even among that group the former name is heard less and less often.
What this long story about a mountain peak that is unknown outside the Bow Valley points to is an instance when re-naming was called for not to appease feeling of liberal guilt, but to correct a mistake from a past century. It did not negatively impact the burgeoning tourist economy of Canmore. If anything, it made an already great story about how a mountain got its name even better. The same cannot be said in the argument for re-naming Stanley Park. The implications of that change are too great. The park is an internationally recognized landmark for Vancouver. Novels are set there. Doctoral dissertations are written about it – like that recently completed by Sean Kheraj. When a wind storm knocked over trees the entire country mourned Vancouver’s loss. The re-naming would not right a historical wrong when the park was named after the Governor General of the day and was created to preserve a portion of the forest around Vancouver from logging long after the process of segregation of First Nations from settler society had begun and thus dispossessed the groups of the piece of land in question. Like so many places in Canada, and around the world, the name changed along with how the place was used and who was in control of it. Re-naming when it corrects an oversight or snub of past administrations is justified and should, no, must be done. When it does not do these things; when it is more a tool of politicking and playing on the liberal guilt of a society striving to make up for the past by being overly politically correct in the present; when that has enormous economic and cultural implications; then re-naming is bad idea.
There are alternatives to re-naming an entire park – like marking where the village in question was – but if the proposal, as it stands now, were to go through it would be a PR nightmare for Vancouver, British Columbia, and Canada. Unfortunately for the Squamish First Nations this is one of those rare instances where the colonial name needs to stay and the past inhabitants of Stanley Park are commemorated in a way that does not involve changing the name on the map. Ironically enough, the issue of re-naming Stanley Park was raised on June 30 at the opening of the new First Nations display, Klahowya Village.
(I should mention this was written sitting in the front window of my parent’s house in Canmore as I watched the sun set behind Ha Ling Peak – well there is tree and a lamp post weren’t in the way but the mountain is there all the same.)
Daffern, Canmore and Kananaskis Country, (Calgary: Rocky Mountain Books, 1994), 39.