Should British Columbia Change Its Name?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is asking this question. They illustrate it like this:

Source: (Tupungato/Shutterstock )

There’s been a national reckoning on place names and the people they’re named after — and some say that conversation should include looking at the name of British Columbia, which is derived, in part, from Christopher Columbus.

Here’s the full article:

So, what of this, huh? The reason for change, the connection with Christopher Columbus (although very distant) and American Manifest Destiny (less distant), is solid. The suggestions they come up with are generous yet problematic. One solid one is suggested by Kwantlen/Nootsack writer Robert Jago:

Jago says one possible name for the region, which he described in detail in a recent article for Canadian Geographic, is the name S’ólh Téméxw, pronounced “soul tow-mock.” It means “our land” or “our world” in Halkomelem, the language spoken by the Kwantlen people at Fort Langley, where B.C. was declared a colony in 1858. 

He readily admits that choosing a name from among 48 Indigenous languages is problematic. I might add that choosing a name based on a British ceremony at a Hudson’s Bay Company Fort is problematic, too. Another generous suggestion put forward in the CBC article is put forward by Ashley Churchill (of the Simpcw nation). She suggests that a word from Chinook Wawa be used, the trade language of the Pacific Northwest that originated in Nu-chal-nuth Territory, grew more robust in Astoria, Oregon, where it merged fur trade and Indigenous trade languages, grew complete in the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Vancouver (Washington) when Indigenous wives of fur traders, women of many different languages and backgrounds, raised their families and children in this new language, spread across the Pacific Northwest and reached written form in Tk’emlúps. As I said, it’s a generous gesture:

[Since] the catalyst for B.C. becoming a place and becoming part of Canada was trade, [the Hudson’s Bay Company] and the Northwest Company and the gold rush, maybe [we should use] the trade language that was also developed here to facilitate communication, that multicultural communication across language boundaries and cultural boundaries

A language that crosses cultural and language boundaries is a great suggestion. There are, however, problems there, too:

  • The people of the Lower Columbia actively assert that the language is theirs.
  • B.C. didn’t become a place because of trade. It did so because of a desire to keep this northern part of the Pacific Northwest British during a bloody genocidal war over gold in the Fraser Canyon, and threats of its spread into the Okanagan and the trade root up from Oregon.
  • B.C. didn’t become a part of Canada because of trade. It couldn’t pay its bills as a colony unsupported by England. Canada bought it and the same year land set aside for Indigenous people was reduced by 97%.

Still, even though Canada is not here because of trade, the language offers some real hope. Churchill’s suggestion is:

Churchill says one option that reflects the geographical nature of this region is the Chinook term Illaheechuk or Illahee Chuk, which means “where land meets water”, where illahee (or il’-la-hie) means land, ground or earth and chuk means water. 

Interestingly enough, Illahie is one of the most complex of words, meaning far more than “land”, although that’s how it settled down in settler understandings. It’s origin is in complex, storied Indigenous relationships with environment and place, especially around inherited rights to fishing sites. These include fish weirs, and the fine pun between a weir (a line of sticks), a fort (a wall of sticks), a garden (fenced by a wall of willow sticks, planted like a weir), the Indigenous language root of “il”, denoting that the word is a placing of social rights in a land context, and the french la hai, a hedge. They all come together in a fine French Canadian-Indigenous way, denoting a culture of mutual respect and a little bit of good creative humour. Another thread within the word is the ancient stick game of s’lahal, the old bone game that was played with mammoth bones over 13,000 years ago at Sequim. Illaheechuk, though, or “where land meets water”, is not quite it.

In Many Places, the Water is Hidden Within Life

Much of this land is not on the Pacific shore. Many of us are sensitive to these things. All of this land, however, settler and Indigenous, is the illahie, though, or, if you like, s’lahal (or lahal): the fence, the weir, the interwoven social and environmental responsibilities and rights, trade, family, settler and Indigenous relations. And, interestingly enough, that’s what The British Columbia also denoted: that place where people (Indigenous, mixed race, Black, Chinese, British, Catholic and, to one rough vigilante class of settler in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, other genetic undesirables) could go. We have survived here, though, and even at times with the help of Canada. We have a long way ago, but our female cultural ancestors started well in Fort Vancouver, when that was part of this country. I suggest we honour them. Illahie would be a good name for this land, or the other even more universal and more historically rooted word, Lahal (or S’lahal). The game is played by a community. It is often described as a gambling game, but it is so much more, culturally and spiritually. It is, ultimately, the game of becoming human by interfacing with the spirits of the natural world, honouring them on the one hand and giving them honour on the other. Those values are all strong in this place, among settlers and Indigenous peoples alike. Whatever we call this “place”, though, it should be a word from all of the people, and not a word about that settler concept, land, or its resource, water. After all, in Nsyilxcen, the language of the land I write from, “land” and “water” don’t meet. They are one, expressions of the tmixw, the life force. And that’s what we need, a word for people, land and water as one. Lahal does that. Illahie does that. Besides, if we chose Lahal, Laval Quebec might have to change its name to avoid confusion, and how could that be a bad thing?

Laval was named after the first owner of Île Jésus, François de Montmorency-Laval, the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Quebec.

You know, the Catholic guys. Lahal has better roots than that.

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