by Marco Ovies, Features Editor
Content warning: mentions of anti-Indigenous stereotypes and violence against Indigenous peoples
Simon Fraser “The Explorer” was born in Mapletown, Hoosick County (modern-day so-called New York), and he lived from 1776 to 1862. In 1792, Fraser entered the fur trade with the North West Company (NWC) — which is a name you might recognize if you ever took a “Canadian” history class. After working his way up the ranks, the NWC asked Fraser to travel westward and find the Columbus River. Instead, Fraser stumbled upon what is now known as the Fraser River.
During his two journeys on this river, Fraser documented his findings through journal entries and letters sent to his employers. While we don’t have the original journal that he wrote in 1808 about his famous trip to the sea, we have a fair copy compiled by an unknown author of his journey. This has now been widely accepted as “true” BC history, due to Western knowledge valuing written accounts over Indigenous oral history. But if you actually read Fraser’s 1808 fair copy journal, it very clearly places Euro-American culture above that of Indigenous peoples.
Fraser stated that the Indigenous peoples he met “seemed rather stupid, and not much inclined to satisfy our desires.” These Eurocentric assumptions play into the establishment of huge misunderstandings between settler-colonial and Indigenous relations that have only grown over the centuries. Indigenous peoples were quickly assigned the role of “The Other” in the racial order that placed Euro-American culture above others.
While most Indigenous peoples were described as “savage” in his accounts, this was not the case for all. Some territories were described as “plentiful” where Indigenous people were “hospitable” and “happy” to see him. In other words, the places that were seen as safe and welcoming were really places that would not get in the way of colonization. Throughout his journal, there is little to no consideration of Indigenous territories, clearly shown by Fraser referring to the land he “discovered” as “New Caledonia” in honour of where his mother was born in Scotland.
Just by giving this territory a European name, Fraser promoted a colonial narrative that ignores Indigenous rights and titles.
By using Fraser’s biased 1808 fair copy journal, he is elevated to the status of a “hero” rather than a man sent to expand business operations. It doesn’t help that Fraser’s name seems to appear everywhere in our modern age. The Fraser River, Fraser Lake, Fort Fraser, Simon Fraser Elementary, The Simon Fraser Bridge, and, of course, Simon Fraser University are all named after this colonizer. This just reinforces the idea that European expansion was a positive process and completely neglects the historical accounts of Indigenous peoples.
Yet we still place these colonizers on a pedestal over and over again. We literally have a bust of Simon Fraser on a pedestal in New Westminster along the Fraser River.
While it is known as the Fraser River, there were Indigenous peoples living along that water long before Fraser was even born. The river has also gone by many different names such as Lhta Koh (which means the confluence of many rivers in the Dakelh language) and the Stó:lô (a Halq’eméylem word for river). It is only now known as the Fraser River because David Thompson, one of Fraser’s NWC colleagues, named it after him.
It’s great that Canadian governments and institutions want to talk about decolonization, but how can they do that when they still celebrate colonizers that brought so much violence to Canada? More specifically, how can an institution named Simon Fraser University talk about decolonization when it’s named after a colonizer? These conversations seem empty to me when we are still looking up to these colonizers as heroes.
Governments and institutions talk about decolonization in a reactionary way. With the “discovery” of the unmarked gravesites at the former Kamloops residential school, every institution is offering their apology as if they are surprised by Canada’s violent history. But I already see the outrage and despair everyone was feeling start to dissipate as government officials let this fade into the background — just like the rest of Canadian history. It’s time for us to really look around us and actively take efforts in decolonization. And maybe that should start with a name change.