Canada celebrates 152 years as a country in 2019. Of course, that doesn’t mean the land and its people are 152 years old. The multitude of Indigenous people living where Canada is now have been here more than 10,000 years.
My country has a lot of work to do; the government calls it “reconciliation.” I was born here, but I am still a white settler in a colonial nation. The better word for what needs to be done is “decolonization.”
Currently, I’m reading COLLAPSE by Jared Diamond, subtitled How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed. Diamond argues it’s mostly environmental. But honestly, the answer is not something those societies chose to do, but Europeans.
This book was published in 2005, and while I appreciate sentences like this: “Europeans ‘discovered’ Mangareva in 1797,” I wonder if we have now come far enough to forgo the quotation marks and replace the word “discovered” completely.
“Europeans encountered Mangareva in 1797.” If you need more specificity: “Europeans first encountered Mangareva in 1797.”
Even when I was in school through the 1990s, teachers and textbooks regularly referred to European discoveries of Indigenous land, as if these were accomplishments to be hailed. Today, I have to be careful and conscious not to repeat the same platitudes to my students.
I recently completed a book for elementary school kids. I set it here, in the Lower Mainland, because this is the place I know best. As I wrote, I used the place names: Vancouver, Stanley Park, Coal Harbour. But when it came time to revise and send to agents, I made a different choice.
I changed all the names. It’s nice (easier?) to write about a fictional place, even one you know well. It lifts the burden of research.
But I also live in British Columbia, the most stubbornly Imperial of all the provinces. It’s right there in our name. Vancouver was a British naval captain. Stanley was a Governor General. Coal was an export commodity.
The government has worked to acknowledge the Indigenous claim of this land, but our street signs remind us every day how little acknowledgement really means with no concrete action behind it.
I renamed the city. I renamed the park. When my character tells stories about her family’s travels, I used the Indigenous names for current landmarks.
The readers who know this city will know the city in my book. If I have done my job with the writing, the colonial names will cease to be necessary.