Messing with street names has complications

Posted 10.30.10

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | If we discover a street in Gatineau, Quebec, named after a mass-murderer, someone who practiced genocide and biological warfare (against First Nations peoples), aren't we obligated to get rid of that memorial?

Would we stomach a street named after a local Nazi from the 1930s, or a place-name celebrating (that's what place names do) convicted murderer Paul Bernardo? We do have these people in our history, but why celebrate them? What educational or preventative purpose would this have?

But because a street refers to a historical person does not mean this name cannot be changed -- City Council's chairman, Patrice Martin (a brilliant mind on council) is mistaken in arguing that point. Because Amherst Street refers (historians tell us) to a British agent who intentionally spread smallpox among native peoples with infected blankets, does not mean we must continue to honour this depravity.

Rue Amherst should have its name changed. This is not political correctness; it is morally correct.

The question is larger. Several councillors want to comb our city's place names and change not only duplicates but also names of characters (or events) which do not meet certain moral, political, or nationalistic criteria. Amherst Street is the easiest case to open this exercise.

Less easy is Leamy Road, named after one of Hull's founding fathers. Presumably he was a positive force, and even in the shaky ground of language politics, although English-speaking, Leamy is not known to have oppressed or exploited his neighbours. Yet some councillors also want this name dropped.

They claim that Algonquin people are not well represented in our city's geography. They want to change Leamy for an Algonquin name, Atawe. There is no negative here, as there is with Amherst. To keep Leamy is to keep history -- this is where Mr. Martin's argument has traction. There is no reason to change this name, apart from the nationalist itch that Leamy was an anglo.

Obscuring this fact by invoking the need for native place names is ridiculous. Why not change Principale or St-Joseph or Main? These have minor historic reference. The cheapness of this tactic is compounded by the fact that Algonquins were not active in this area, and, as far as we know, not at all near the Leamy Farm and its famous road.

How much outrage would these patriotic councillors feel if Manitoba, for example, decided to cleanse its place names of rebels, of people who fought against the country, not for it?

On the opposite side of this debate, anglophones who share an outrage at the changing of street names should also pause for thought. Gatineau does have innumerable street and place names which refer to historical anglophones. Our region is full of anglo names (including Ryans Corners!). Anglos have no right to feel under attack, oppressed, or insulted by efforts to change Amherst and, maybe, Leamy.

This is a question to be solved with ethics, history, and intelligence. Not with majority bigotry, nor with minorities crying wolf.

Copyright © 2010 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/10.10