Published:August 2, 2021
There’s been a national reckoning on place names and the people they’re named after — and some say that conversation should include looking at the name of British Columbia, which is derived, in part, from Christopher Columbus.
Robert Jago, a writer and consultant from the Kwantlen First Nation and the Nooksack Tribe, says any association with the Italian explorer, who is widely associated with the beginnings of the violent colonization of the Americas, is problematic.
“I think everyone knows this by now, but Christopher Columbus had some issues. Even in his day, he was seen as incredibly violent, genocidal,” Jago told guest host Angela Sterritt on CBC’s The Early Edition.
“To name a jurisdiction after this person is, in this day and age, not something we would do.”
British Columbia was named after the Columbia River, whose name, like several others in the Americas including Colombia and the District of Columbia in the U.S., is derived from the explorer.
The conversation around naming places has reached a fever pitch this summer. For example:
- Toronto city council voted in favour of renaming Dundas Street due to Henry Dundas’s association with the transatlantic slave trade.
- Edmonton city council voted unanimously to remove all city references — including the name of an LRT station — to Vital Grandin, a bishop considered an architect of Canada’s residential schools.
- There have been growing calls to rename Ryerson University, which was named after Egerton Ryerson, another architect of Canada’s residential school system.
Michelle Nahanee, who is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and the founder of Nahanee Creative, says this renaming process is important and an opportunity to look at what we believe now as a society.
“[Renaming B.C.] would be an opportunity to take us into the future as a decolonial land and approaches that are more connected to the land and the values that are here today,” Nahanee said.
Choosing a new name for B.C., Jago said, would be a fresh start.
“It’s really hard to build things up when we’re continuously being pulled back and reminded of this horrible past,” he said.
“If we can have a new name, that’s part of it.”
Possible alternative names for B.C.
Jago says one possible name for the region, which he described in detail in a recent article for Canadian Geographic, is the name S’ólh Téméxw, pronounced “soul tow-mock.” It means “our land” or “our world” in Halkomelem, the language spoken by the Kwantlen people at Fort Langley, where B.C. was declared a colony in 1858.
However, both Jago and Nahanee say it’s difficult to come up with a name when the jurisdiction of British Columbia is itself an artificial colonial creation made up of many different regions and nations.
“There are 34 Indigenous languages and then 60 more dialects. I can’t really say we can pick one word from one of those languages,” said Nahanee.
Ashley Churchill, a consultant who is from the Simpcw First Nation and born in Tk’emlúps, says another option is using words from Chinook jargon, the pidgin language that came out of the trade relationships between the various Indigenous nations and settlers in British Columbia in the 19th century.
“[Since] the catalyst for B.C. becoming a place and becoming part of Canada was trade, [the Hudson’s Bay Company] and the Northwest Company and the gold rush, maybe [we should use] the trade language that was also developed here to facilitate communication, that multicultural communication across language boundaries and cultural boundaries,” Churchill said.
Churchill says one option that reflects the geographical nature of this region is the Chinook term Illaheechuk or Illahee Chuk, which means “where land meets water”, where illahee (or il’-la-hie) means land, ground or earth and chuk means water.
Nahanee says rooting a new name in Chinook jargon, a language that represents a group of people, settler and Indigenous, is a good idea.
“We’ve blended all of our languages to figure out how to communicate with each other. That’s something that’s born of this place,” Nahanee said.