Re-Naming; or Being Politically Correct

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.

From the lower bench looking over Canmore toward Ha Ling (centre left), White Man's Gap (centre), and EEOR (centre right)

(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.

About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
This entry was posted in Canada, Environment, Opinion, Public History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Re-Naming; or Being Politically Correct

  1. Sean says:

    Hi Lauren,

    I enjoyed this article–quite thought provoking. Re-naming places most certainly remains an integral part of the Canadian story, and I am ever grateful for that. Oh, the term paper opportunities (I would tather take a little funding here and there,/now and then, to be honest). I am a little confused, however, with where the “politically correct” notion lies.

    Just whose frames of reference are applied when we use this term–whether in deference, criticism or what have you. If a request to change a place name is made then it is at least partly based on an entire different set of life experiences from those a) who imposed the colonial name in the first place; AND b) those who supposedly carry the burden of the liberal-tinged guilt-driving factory (and there can be lots of that–but not necessarily in this case). Indeed, in many cases the above two are indistinguishable. But they can be significantly different from the group making the initial request. With respect to place name changes, it takes a least two groups to tango, and the idea of “politically correct” motivation seems to me to be a bit disempowering and reveals a cultural sleight of hand. Generally, I think sometimes we forget that when we use the word. I would love to learn of the debate in the local Squamish community. One wonders if it was also an issue they grappled with. . We seem to think that people close to us are diverse but the farther away we get from others, there is less diversity. “Politically correct” leaves me asking more questions than had the word not been used.

    I am also mesmerized from debates of this kind, but my reading eventually comes around to the ways in which such so-called profound moments are actually kind of hollow in the face of more hidden, but less ‘sexy’ dialogues. If there remains an alternative(?) name to Stanley Park then there always have been at least two rather different but overlapping narratives already at work. I remember teaching on the James Bay coast: The in-class maps of the region were in french but the names were Cree. And we lived in an English-first (Ontario) province. Kind of trippy but also allowed for some interesting & multi-lingual place-naming in the places where it rarely makes the headlines–schools, community centres and families gatherings. Who says one must choose one over the other?

    Thanks for motivating me to write Lauren: School programs at Elk Island NP are over and before our summer program begins next weekend–I’m in a two-person three-act play (?!?) on the 100+ year history of the Park– I plan to write down some of my thoughts as being a Parks Canada Interpreter-Guy. Its been a blast! A real learning experience too.

    Besides, Christine says she likes a man in uniform 😉


    • Thanks for the comment Sean.
      I agree politically correct is a problematic term and it is one I hate hearing thrown about in the media. However, late last night it seemed to be the best option available since it expresses the most common way the people in power (culturally and politically) attempt to navigate the tricky post-contact, post-colonial – dare I say post-modern – minefield of inter-cultural relationships that characterize contemporary Canadian politics. In hindsight, maybe not the best choice of wording.
      Looking forward to your take on a summer as a Parks Canada Guy!


  2. jeffslack says:

    Nice post Lauren. Place names is something I’ve been grappling with a lot lately. While they certainly are powerful means of constructing and obscuring meaning about a certain place, they are not the only means of communicating such meaning.

    I agree that the most appropriate option is keeping the current name while ensuring that other historical narratives–including the long presence of Xwayxway village–are properly represented in the park landscape. Marking the actual village site would certainly force many visitors to rethink this refuge of nature in the midst of a modern metropolis, and the city of Vancouver as a whole. This, I think, is desirable.

    The names are not analagous, either. As I understand it, Xwayxway refers to a village that existed on part of the present parklands, not the peninsula as a whole. Haida Gwaii made more sense because it was actually analagous to the name it replaced, and better reflected the cultural history and present trajectory of the islands.

    Stanley Park has been a municipal park (although people continue to occupy the land, of course) for over a century and will continue to be so for a long time. While the process by which First Nations were dispossessed from their lands is in many ways regrettable, there are better ways of remembering the landscape’s pasts and reconciling them with present realities.

  3. jeffslack says:

    PS- I always wondered about the origins of “Chinaman’s Peak” and although I lived in Banff/Canmore on and off between 2001-2003, I never knew the Ha Ling story, or that the name had been officially replaced. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the much better summary of the history of Stanley Park and the naming issues around it than I could give Jeff.
      There is one thing I left out which has entertained me for years. Across the valley from Ha Ling/Chinaman’s is a peak without an official name but which is locally known as “Squaw’s Tit.” Possibly the least politically correct mountain name around – but in all fairness, the mountain does look like the upturned breast of a woman.

      • Jeff says:

        Hi Lauren,
        The word squaw is not a bad word, it means woman in Algonquin.
        As to the tit, there are also the Gran Teton mountain range, less than flattering, but part of many languages as proper. This is where the ‘Political correctness’ fad jumps in to right a wrong that isn’t wrong.

        I agree there are many racist types of names used that should not be used, but they were used in a time when it was common to do so. However, if we can change them, should we also change the ‘Lost Dutchman’ mine and ‘Scotts’ville names while we are at it?
        When is it allowable or not, and who determines the appropriateness?

        It reminds me of a man who lost his job due to the fact he was of Scottish decent, he wore a badge to work that was the crest or coat of arms of his clan, when he was asked by an African American woman what the badge was for, he told her it was for his clan, but she took offense to it and reported it to the management and he lost his job…

        Zero tolerance at its best…

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  5. Sean Kheraj says:

    Sorry I didn’t read this post sooner. This was a fascinating, albeit fleeting, controversy manufactured by the Province newspaper last summer. It appeared in the headlines not long after the Province launched an editorial tirade against the Squamish Nation’s electronic billboards. We were told that the billboards would surely spoil Vancouver’s spectacular views and possibly ruin the Olympics with crass commercialism (thank goodness we somehow managed to avoid commercialism of the Olympics!). This story about the proposal to re-name Stanley Park fell very neatly within the newspaper’s recent (and longer-standing) anti-Squamish editorial position and it played a very tired race-baiting game in BC history that never seems to lose its effect on Vancouver’s non-Aboriginal population.

    I just wanted to make one very important correction:

    The creation of Stanley Park in 1887 directly led to the dispossession and displacement of the Squamish people who lived at Whoi Whoi (or Xway xway). It did not occur long after the segregation of Aboriginal people in the Lower Mainland. It occurred contemporaneously with the establishment of the reserve system in BC. The Squamish were denied a reserve on the Stanley Park peninsula in 1876. The last Squamish woman to live on the original village site did so until her death in 1923. Upon her death, her property was purchased by a wealthy member of the Park Board and gifted to the city. The final remains of the village were then burned. The last Squamish-descendent to live in the park did so until his death in 1958. The peninsula is one of the largest archaeological sites in the Lower Mainland for First Nations history. Whoi Whoi was the largest Aboriginal village on Burrard Inlet at the time of European resettlement and colonization in the late 1850s. Although the name refers to a specific village site on the peninsula and not the entire peninsula itself, it was the predominant name for this space (even among the first European and Asian colonists in the mid-nineteenth century).

    I spoke with Joe Burima on Today in Canadian History about this naming controversy and pointed out something that I think a lot of Vancouverites overlook. Stanley Park is not an original name unique to Vancouver. There are Stanley Parks throughout Canada and parts of the former British empire. As you know, there is a rather nice Stanley Park along the Elbow River in Calgary. The naming controversy over Stanley Park is actually quite similar to the case of Haida Gwaii and the mountain controversy you outlined in this post. Re-naming Stanley Park (in the manner that was proposed) would, as you said above, go toward correcting “a mistake from a past century.”

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