I don’t have much respect for empty gestures. I especially don’t care for them when they are motivated not out of genuine wish to improve things, but to soothe an emotional/intellectual sore spot of people who are otherwise quite comfortable.
Where am I going with this? As a means of discussing the recent idea of Ben Issitt, a city counsellor of Victoria, BC, where I live, of changing the name of this city from its current name back to the traditional name of this land, Camosun, or Camosack, as a means of reconciling with the First Nations of BC, specifically, the Coast Salish Lekwungen, WSANEC, and Esquimalt people of the Songhees Nation.
I respect Ben Issitt’s positive intentions, and I obviously do not speak for the First Nations of this land, since I am not one of them, but my inclination towards this proposal is to dismiss it as an overall empty gesture, and feel that it would do a lot more to nurse the bruised activist egos of non-Indigenous inhabitants than to affect any real positive change in the lives of Indigenous people living under the thumb of an oppressive system which continues to this day.
I am not denying that names are important. Language can really make a difference in the way you perceive yourself and your surroundings. Take
The Sandwich Islands Hawaii for instance. But changing the place names now, in a time when First Nations in BC live in fear of their territories being encroached upon by pipelines and tankers which could potentially spill enough oil to obliterate all life in the land and sea, when Indigenous women are vanishing, dying, or being raped or battered at more than twice the rate of non-Indigenous women, and grinding poverty, racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, homelessness, and desperation are part of the daily lives of many Indigenous people, doesn’t mean all that much. In the age where the Indian Act is alive and well, it doesn’t do much good for an Indigenous person to hear, “We call this place what you once called it! Of course, it still belongs to us, and you’re not granted full freedoms on it, but isn’t that nice of us?” out of the mouths of colonizers.
These problems persist in cities like Seattle, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Missoula, Saskatoon, Honolulu, and Quebec City, so a name change back to its Indigenous roots doesn’t magically make things better in a city. Such an effort has to be accompanied by genuine attempts to ease these conditions and look towards really undoing the systems which allow these injustices to continue, unchecked. The issue of place names is only one tiny portion, the tip of the trunk of the elephant in the room of colonialism’s continuing legacy in Canada.
If the non-Indigenous people of this city and its elected officials start working with First Nations and urban Indigenous populations towards ending poverty, racism, and the other myriad of problems caused by ignoring these colonial continuations, then, maybe, the city of Camosun/Camosack would undergo an incredible change and start towards real progress. Without that though, a simple name change is merely selfish, hypocritical puffery, meant more to make people feel accomplished than to actually attain accomplishment.