It’s time to rethink British Columbia’s colonial name

A growing number of people in BC think the province should change its name to acknowledge Indigenous history

multiple Canadian flags on flagpoles
PHOTO: Aria Amirmoini / The Peak

By: Karissa Ketter, News Editor

To everyone who proudly calls themselves British Columbian: I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably neither British, nor Columbian. So, why do we live in a province with this name, and more importantly — why don’t we question it?

Before BC was an official British colony, our university’s colonial namesake Simon Fraser named the province’s central region “New Caledonia.” When BC became a colony in 1858, Queen Victoria renamed us to “British Columbia” so we wouldn’t get “confused” with South America or the French colony of New Caledonia. So-called British Columbia is named after the Columbia River, which American trader Robert Gray named after his boat.

The overwhelming colonial history of our name doesn’t represent the diverse populations that live here, nor the rich Indigenous history that existed long before Simon Fraser and Queen Victoria ever set foot on Turtle Island. For instance, the Haida people have occupied their territory for at least 10,000 years.

According to a Research Co. study conducted in October 2022, 32% of British Columbians would like to see a name change for the province. Beyond that, over 50% of the age group 18–34 said they would support a name change. 61% of Indigenous people also feel we should consider switching the name.

The major issues people have with the name “British Columbia” are its lack of Indigenous acknowledgement, and the word “British,” according to the poll. An additional 31% of people think we should also change our flag, along with our name. The BC flag has a British union jack — the union jack cross symbolizes England, Ireland, and Scotland being united under one sovereignty. Its presence in British Columbia’s flag is an allusion to the country’s colonial roots in the British monarchy. These symbols and names associated with our province simply don’t represent most people living here

Before some of you start questioning the logistics of a change like this, it really isn’t that radical of an idea. Many colonially named locations have had existing names for centuries. Back in 2009, the archipelago once known as Queen Charlotte Islands had its traditional name Haida Gwaii restored. 

No one is suggesting we change the province’s name without considerable planning and thought. This shouldn’t be a snap decision that the government makes. There should be thorough and meaningful consultation with all the communities that make up BC — which includes Indigenous people, most of all. 

Our province is built on their history, their knowledge, and their ancestors. Consulting with Indigenous people needs to be the province’s top priority in the decision making process for what this region could be called. 

The real question shouldn’t be, “Should we bother changing the name?” It should be, “Why wouldn’t we?” Other provinces in Canada already have names that reflect Indigneous history and culture. Ontario comes from the Iroquois word “kanadario,” which means sparkling water. Saskatchewan got its name from the Cree name for the Saskatchewan river: “Kisiskatchewanisipi,” which means swift-flowing river. 

Any argument that says we shouldn’t change the name is upholding a colonialist system, where everyone who benefits from colonialism chooses to ignore the country’s troubling history. Changing British Columbia’s colonial name is the bare minimum our province should do to acknowledge this land’s Indigenous history and true ownership.