Negro? Niger? Nigger? What's in a name?


Posted 07.08.06

STANSTEAD EAST, QUEBEC | Two new signs at the busy intersection of Routes 141 and 143 here in the Eastern Townships, only eleven miles from the US-Canadian border are raising the eyebrows of some northbound motorists.

Marcus Dent, a black American who travels into Canada with his wife and children several times a year has raised the issue with a local newspaper.

Dent wrote to the Sherbrooke Record, according to a front-page story, registering a complaint and seeking an explanation.

According to the Record, this was not an unfortunate typographical error.

Marcel Fourcaudot, a researcher with the Province's Toponymy ( A study of place names ) Commission, confirmed that the river formerly called "The Niger" would now appear with and extra "g" since, according to their records, the new sign recently installed by the Quebec Transportation Department, had been the official name since 1987 and dating back to the days of the earliest settlers in that region.

Most tourist maps, however, still continue to refer to it as the "Niger River".

According to the Toponymy Commission the controversial word most think of as a racial slur, is actually a derivative of the word for a device used to push logs towards saws in the 19th century.

Matthew Farfan, a local history buff, referring to an 1874 book by B. F. Hubbard called Forest and Clearings: A History of Stanstead County which claims the river was named "Negro River" after a black family, the Tattons who settled nearby in 1804.

In those days ,according to Farfan, the word Negro and the controversial Niger variation, were used interchangeably without necessarily representing negative or racially demeaning connotations.

Curiously a few hundred yards up Route 143, where the river goes under the road again , the old "Niger River" signs are still in place.

Historical accuracy on the part of the Quebec government may not impress most American tourists headed north. Canada's Governor General, Michaelle Jean, who's home is Quebec, and is black, may not be likely be pleased, either.

"I don't see the problem," Farfan told the Record - if the name is historically correct and an explanatory plaque was installed to put the name in context.

Copyright © 2006 Gordon Alexander/Log Cabin Chronicles/05.06