Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

What's in a Name

Oct 14, 2017

Last week CBC Radio called to invite me onto a noon call-in segment to discuss the re-naming of Siwash Rock in particular and the question of place names in general. Being preoccupied with rehab (see below) I could not accept the invitation but if I had I might have suggested to listeners that they ask themselves: What would Major Matthews do?

Major James Skitt Matthews (1878-1970) was the founder of the Vancouver City Archives. By all accounts he was an unlikeable guy: autocratic, stubborn as a mule, a complainer and a bully. But he was also a diligent collector and defender of Vancouver’s historical record back when pretty much no one else cared. And unusually for his time – he was archivist from 1933 to 1969 – he admired the city’s Aboriginal inhabitants and took steps to record their special knowledge.

Early in 1933 Matthews convened a meeting of elders at the Rogers Building downtown. He had spent several years consulting with the local First Nations to compile a map of Burrard Inlet, the North Shore and the peninsula that comprises the City of Vancouver. The map, which he titled “Indian Names for Familiar Places,” contained the Squamish names for 65 village sites and physical features and he had brought the elders together to put their stamp of approval on the project, which they did. “That was part of our history which had been lost,” said Chief Matthias Joe from the Capilano Reserve. “We have it now.” The map was subsequently published in the local press.

Not surprisingly the map showed that the local First Nations had their own names for all major landmarks in the region. Kitsilano Beach was Skwayoos; Point Grey was Ulksen; Brockton Point was Paapee-ak; Prospect Point was Chay-thoos; and so on. And Siwash Rock was Slah-kay-ulsh, now rendered as Slhx̱í7lsh.

I think it is past time that these place names, and all the others, be brought back into common usage (with suitable allowance for the way their renderings have changed over the years). We need to be reminded that there was a world here long before the arrival of Europeans.

On the other hand, I do not see why this requires the removal of the more familiar Anglo names. Why not adopt the model already in use along the Sea-to-Sky Highway where road signs indicate Squamish and Lil’wat names for all manner of landmarks and physical features, without eradicating the English equivalents? Obviously this would have to be done with the full cooperation of the local First Nations.

In the odd case an English place name may be offensive, which is what some people feel about Siwash, apparently a derogatory term derived from Chinook Jargon. In that case, get rid of it. But for the most part the English names are inoffensive and in some cases reflect significant incidents from settler history (eg. Jericho, or Jerry’s Cove, is a reference to early logger Jerry Rogers).

It seems to me that sharing place names completes the work done by Major Matthews more than 80 years ago.