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So long, 'Queen Charlotte Islands'

The tangled politics of renaming lands for First Nation peoples. The Queen Charlotte Islands are now Haida Gwaii. Should Victoria then be renamed Camosack?

British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands have been renamed Haida Gwaii, reported the CBC on Dec. 11, whereupon all commenting hell broke loose: traditionalists crying historical revisionism and political correctness; alarmists wondering if Vancouver Island, Victoria, and B.C. itself are next; wags predicting confusion with Hawaii; detractors of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell protesting the lack of public involvement; and quite a few people very much in favor of the archipelago returning to its "original name."

The story is a lot smaller and a lot larger. The latter first. The name change is only a small "part of a historic reconciliation agreement between the province and the Haida Nation that deals with power- and revenue-sharing, forestry, and other natural resources, land-use planning, and carbon offsets. Many commenters ignored this aspect. (To be fair, the CBC, the CP, The Globe and Mail, and the (Victoria) Times-Colonist all emphasized the naming angle in their headlines and leads.)

Those who picked up on it seem to think it's all about getting the Haida on board with the privatization of BC Hydro and the expansion of oil and gas exploration and wind farming. One especially astute reader noted, as did the CP, that this is the second such Reconciliation Protocol in as many days — B.C. signed one with the Coastal First Nations the day before. Setting aside those who accuse the First Nations of leeching off the rest of Canada, I wonder if those who are opposed to these developments fear the Haida will follow the Nisga'a (a First Nation group in northwest B.C.) in establishing private property rights, which could — in theory &mdash lead to the islands being overrun with developers, drillers, and turbines?

As far as the name change itself goes, it should be noted that the archipelago's original name is in fact not Haida Gwaii ("islands of the people"), but rather Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai ("islands at the boundary of the world"), though the Haida themselves have been using the former name for over 30 years.

Moreover, the renaming is not yet official — the agreement commits the B.C. government to put forth enabling legislation in 2010, and the Geographic Names Board of Canada must also approve the change. Many, including the government, have been using the clunky "Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands" or vice versa, while even more have been using the native name on its own. One fellow Crosscut writer told me she'd been calling it that since she went there four years ago and had no idea the name wasn't yet official. To the fewer than 4,000 residents of the Queen Charlottes, nearly half of them Haida, this change may largely be symbolic.

I do wonder, though, how much traction this idea would have gotten were Haida Gwaii not an archipelago — the individual islands' names will remain, much as there still exists a Georgia Strait within the larger Salish Sea — and if the Haida were a smaller percentage of the population. For example, I'd think Vancouver Island, where First Nations make up 5.5% of the population (PDF), stands a better chance of regaining its lost Quadra than of adopting a native moniker. Yet, if it were possible, would renaming Victoria Camosack or Vancouver S'ólh Téméxw be an even more meaningful act of reconciliation?

No comment, by the way, from Canada's head of state on the fate of the islands named not, as is often thought, after her great-great-great-great-grandmother, but rather after the explorer George Dixon's ship.

Seattle native Benjamin Lukoff's interest in local history was kindled at the age of six, when his father bought him Sophie Frye Bass’s Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle at the MOHAI gift shop. His first book, Seattle Then and Now, was published in 2010. You can send him e-mail at lukoff@gmail.com or find him on Twitter at @lukobe.


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