Renaming and reconciliation

With Gassy Jack down, it’s time we start to look at how naming affects the areas we live in

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An illustration of the Gassy Jack statue, formerly adorning a pedestal in the heart of Vancouver, is toppled and on the ground.
On February 14, 2022, the “Gassy Jack” Deighton statue was toppled during the annual Downtown Eastside Women’s Memorial March. ILLUSTRATION: Jason Yeh / Unsplash

By: Gurleen Aujla, Peak Associate

Content warning: colonialism, Indian Act, intergenerational trauma, ongoing harm

The “Gassy Jack” statue, from which Gastown draws its name, has been pulled down. Unlike the statue, however, colonialism still stands. This is evident in the names of streets, institutions, cities, and even our own school. This leads to the question of whether we ought to rename places like Gastown to reflect a shift away from upholding colonial perspectives, and demonstrate our commitment to reconciliation. 

Though I am a non-Indigenous person with a filtered perspective on what reconciliation should look like, I don’t see name changes alone as showing we seriously value commitment to reconciliation. 

A name change without further concrete action is not enough to decolonize or reconcile an inherently colonial space. “Canada” was built upon white supremacy, and that carries through to our present-day interactions; we must own up to and live with that. A name change would be a temporary solution that would take a long time to come to fruition and might gloss over — or even attempt to hide —  our multi-faceted and shameful history. 

I worry that name changes would be performative political moves, shifting focus away from the continuing reality of the Indian Act and the issues that Indigenous peoples face today. Avenues to reconciliation were presented in the 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but only 11 have been completed in seven years, showing the work is most definitely not done. Renaming is not reconciliation; it’s simply a very tiny part of it. 

In the words of We Wai Kai Nation member and former Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould: “Symbolism is important, including as a tool of education, but cannot be the core or foundation of our focus if we are at all serious about our society moving forward.”

So what would it mean for us to confront our history and engage in meaningful reconciliation and the redress of intergenerational trauma? This is a much longer and more difficult endeavour that requires ongoing conversations centring Indigenous voices and what they need for healing — likely more than just a new label painted on the side of a building. 

If a name is inconsistent with our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, justice, and reconciliation, its change should occur in tandem with other actions. In addition, the change must be completed in consultation with (or ideally led by) the Indigenous nations whose land the named entity is on. If we pursue a name change, we must also ensure a space to hear and centre Indigenous stories and oral history. 

Everything from our schools, cities, government buildings, and streets show this country’s foundations as being built upon settler colonialism. This legacy is still alive and strong. In response, we must centre what various Indigenous peoples and nations need for healing — perhaps starting at, but not ending with renaming. We must dedicate our time, resources, and energy to long-lasting and sustainable transformations in how we confront our history. The names of places have meaning, but they’re not what define peoples’ experiences in the spaces.