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It’s really shameful’: N.B.’s racist place names remain, despite years of calls for change

August 9, 2023

Province says it’s prioritized changing derogatory place names, but has budgeted less than $8,000 for it 

A man in a collared shirt stares at a camera off centre, with a white shelf behind him.
Sitansisk Chief Allan Polchies says it’s triggering for elders in his community to see place names that include racist and derogatory terminology. (Ed Hunter/CBC )

CBC News: When elders from Chief Allan Polchies’s community see place names with derogatory language, it’s triggering for them, he says. At least seven locations across the province bear the name of a racist and misogynistic term used against Indigenous women — more than any other province or territory, according to the Canadian Geographical Names Database.

“Our elders see that, it upsets them,” Sitansisk Chief Polchies said. “When your spirit is upset, it doesn’t give you a very good feeling,” Polchies said. “We want to make sure those place names are changed.”

Mi’kmaw leaders have urged the province to change derogatory names for years, according to an organization representing several communities. In 2019, the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called upon governments to prioritize eliminating “the social, economic, cultural, and political marginalization of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people when developing budgets and determining government activities and priorities.”  

The call came again from Manju Varma, New Brunswick’s former systemic racism commissioner, when she highlighted the issue of place names with racist terminology in her December 2022 report. She wrote that it saddened her to have to make the request again, given the issue had already been raised with the province.” Whenever issues of overt racism are not managed immediately, it is difficult to believe that dealing with racism is a priority,” Varma wrote in the report.

A vehicle and a motorcycle are pictured travelling in opposite directions on a highway. A mountain peak is visible in the background.
The province has solicited suggestions to rename a community and mountain in Restigouche County, but hasn’t yet renamed several other locations that have the same derogatory word in the name. (Radio-Canada)

But so far, the province has only moved to rename two locations in Restigouche County, soliciting suggestions for new names for a community and a mountain this past spring.

And even though the provincial government described it as a “priority” to rename locations with derogatory language, the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture has only budgeted a little more than $7,800 this fiscal year for renaming places, according to briefing materials obtained through access to information.

“It’s really shameful,” Varma told CBC News. “There’s really no other word for it.”

Review holds up renaming of Saint John community

No one from the provincial government was made available for an interview about why all locations haven’t been renamed yet. In a statement, a government spokesperson said “the public and First Nations leadership” identified the locations in Restigouche County as priorities to be renamed first, but didn’t provide evidence that anyone asked for one location to be changed before the others.”

Government is committed to renaming the remaining features of the same name and those containing other derogatory terms,” wrote spokesperson Leigh Watson, who didn’t provide a timeline for when that might happen. A Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture briefing note, prepared this past April, says the provincial government’s approach to place naming is “decentralized,” with areas of authority assigned to different departments.

New Brunswick’s racist place names remain, despite years of calls for change

WATCH | The harm caused by New Brunswick’s derogatory place names: Duration 2:03

New Brunswick has at least seven place names that include a racist term used against Indigenous women, and it’s not clear when the province will rename them.

Click on the following link to view the video:

The province has been reviewing that process for more than two years, according to Varma’s report. That review also appears to be holding up the City of Saint John’s efforts to rename a community with “outdated and offensive terminology” used against Indigenous people.

City council voted to move toward the renaming more than two years ago, but a city spokesperson says the city was told place names are managed by the province’s archaeology and heritage branch, leaving the city to wait until the review is complete. 

“We continue to maintain communication with the province to determine timelines and requirements for moving forward with the renaming process and will be prepared to submit any information that may be required once the process is finalized,” City of Saint John spokesperson Erin White wrote.

‘Why would you wait?’

The provincial government’s statement says the examination of a place name needs to take into account a number of factors, including history and geography, and requires input from “historians, ethnohistorians, language experts, and traditional knowledge holders.”

“In order to consider the needs and expectations of all New Brunswickers, the process requires attention to detail, making it necessary to review each name independently, as opposed to attempting to change all place names, especially those with similar derogatory names, within a short time period,” Watson wrote.

But Varma doesn’t see how a budget of $7,800 could achieve that. She would like to see a committee with strong Indigenous presence to help select new names, where people are paid for their time and expertise. She also doesn’t understand why Indigenous communities would be asked to prioritize which name to change first.

“If there are places that are blatantly insulting, blatantly offensive and trauma-inducing to your population, why wouldn’t you change that right away? Why would you wait?”

A woman wearing a white shirt and glasses stares ahead, with a bookshelf blurred in the background.
Manju Varma, the former commissioner of systemic racism, doesn’t understand why the province hasn’t already renamed locations bearing racist and derogatory language. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

The government has also seemed to rule out changing the name of the St. John River to its original name, Wolastoq, despite years of calls from the Wolastoqey Nation.

“I believe that the government likes to hang on to those items just for dangling a carrot when they’re trying to negotiate with Indigenous people, but we don’t negotiate names,” Polchies said.

Several names changed in 2017

Most of the place names with offensive terms were named by white men, according to Lauren Beck, a Mount Allison University professor who wrote a book called Canada’s Place Names and How to Change Them. Yet much of the labour in renaming these places falls on the shoulders of Indigenous people and other racialized people, Beck said.

“There seems to be very little in the way of remuneration for that time and intellectual activity that might come out of an Indigenous community when asked, what should this offensive name, this elevation, be called,” she said. She pointed to efforts by the Black History Society of New Brunswick several years ago to rename several locations in the province that included racist and offensive language. The society’s co-ordinator, Ralph Thomas, said his organization and PRUDE Inc., a Saint John non-profit focused on education and cultural diversity programs, did the research to understand Black history in those communities. In the case of one community, a woman had been lobbying for a new name for about 30 years, to no avail.

Five place names were changed in 2017, after the government at the time put more than $100,000 into the project, according to a government news release. After his organization got involved, “the steps were, in my opinion, carried out exactly the way it should be,” Thomas said.

Restoring original names part of reconciliation

Restoring Mi’kmaw place names is “an important part of reconciliation and the revitalization of the language, the culture and really restoring the connections to the territory,” according to Tracy Cloud, the director of trilateral negotiations with Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc., also known as MTI, an organization representing several Mi’kmaw communities. But she said little has come from MTI’s push to have original place names restored.

A woman in a black sweater stares ahead at the camera, in front of a building made of wood.
Tracy Cloud, the director of trilateral negotiations with Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc., says the organization has seen little movement from the province to restore original Mi’kmaw place names. (Submitted by Tracy Cloud)

Cloud wrote a letter to the province’s heritage and archeological services branch in March 2022 as part of the government’s review into place naming. It details how removing Mi’kmaw place names was “part of the process of attempting to erase our history and try to deny our connection to the lands and waters.”

“Any process to restore Indigenous place names must be Indigenous-led, and not simply a Crown-led process in which the Mi’gmaq are merely consulted,” the letter says.

More recently, she said, MTI has been gathering information from elders and knowledge keepers to put together a proposal for new names for the locations in Restigouche County. The organization is in the process of making sure its proposed name reflects the cultural heritage of the site and is verified by oral historians, among others, and it plans to submit a proposal to the province once that’s done. 

“But there’s no guarantee,” Cloud said.”We don’t know what type of weight that our suggestion is going to have, which is disappointing.”


Karissa Donkin

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC’s Atlantic investigative unit.