Canada’s Place Names and How to Change Them
Review By Mark Turin
March 21, 2023
The province that lends this journal its name—British Columbia—exemplifies the nomenclatural perversity of colonialism. Not only is ‘British Columbia’ a logical impossibility, but it also reflects the paucity of the imperial imagination that time and again rehearses the same dead kings, recent queens and Old-World home towns that migrants carried with them as they settled. Given the political importance of the subject matter, this book’s activist title—Canada’s Place Names & How to Change Them—is therefore particularly welcome.
Lauren Beck, professor of visual and material culture and Canada Research Chair in intercultural encounter at Mount Allison University, is a judicious and authoritative author, toggling easily between rich, toponymic detail, contemporary theory and the wider political context that makes (re)naming practices such fertile ground for scholarship. Recent, high-profile renamings here in Vancouver—including Trutch Street becoming Musqueamview Street and Sir William Macdonald Elementary now Xpey’ Elementary (xpey’ meaning cedar in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language of the Musqueam people)—only serve to underscore the cultural relevance of Beck’s study.
“We, as a Canadian collective,” Beck writes, “are responsible for the state of our place names” (4). We are inevitably represented through and by our place names, and toponymic deficiencies reveal much if we care to listen. While it’s a tired truism to note that history is written by the winners—German streets commemorating Nazis leaders from the Third Reich have almost all been renamed—Beck demonstrates with dexterity how place names only change when individuals and communities mobilize and act, exerting pressure on institutions and systems to imagine other possibilities. Across the expanse of Canada’s landmass, this young nation’s place names have until now been “primarily an instrument of Euro-settler and masculine identity” (4). If we seek to live in a country that reflects the diverse background of its citizens, we can and must do better than this.
Canada’s Place Names & How to Change Them is structured in six sections, concluding with a nuanced chapter entitled ‘How to Discuss and Change Names’, and bookended by a strong Introduction, generous notes and a comprehensive index. The book takes the reader on a rapid tour of Indigenous place-based knowledge and cosmologies; a brief overview of settler-colonial place making in what became Canada; the role of gender in Canada’s place names together with an exploration of the shocking deficiency of place names that identify women in ways that are not demeaning or sexualized; a very welcome chapter on the settler-colonial appropriation of Indigenous names; and an important chapter on how other marginalized, racialized and minority groups are—or more correctly, are so often not—represented in the names and emblems that constitute Canada.
This highly readable and politically significant book is very much of this cultural moment. As Beck convincingly demonstrates, place names reflect a society’s beliefs, and Canada’s fast changing demographic makeup and cultural values are not well represented in the nation’s current toponyms. Timely and energetically written, reinforced with excellent typesetting and printed on high-quality paper, Canada’s Place Names & How to Change Them makes a lasting scholarly contribution to Canadian Studies.
Beck, Lauren. Canada’s Place Names and How to Change Them. Montreal: Concordia University Press, 2022. 251 pp. $34.95 paper.