“You can’t use an old map to explore a new world,” Albert Einstein once said.
If you’re part of the analog generation, you’re probably old enough to remember when the only navigation tool was a map. Printed on paper. For centuries, awkwardly folded maps with small writing were the only way to get you from point A to point B.
Of course, the digital age has made paper charts pretty much anachronistic. Yet more than just wayfinding relics of a bygone era, maps are important historical documents. Get a map of almost any place from 50 or even five or 10 years ago, and many of the names given to communities, streets, infrastructure and geographic features have probably changed.
“Maps, especially printed maps, represent a snapshot in time of a cartographer’s understanding of a place,” said Connie Wyatt Anderson, Chair of the Geographical Names Board of Canada (GNBC).
You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of GNBC. Wyatt Anderson jokingly calls it the most hidden advice in the history of advice in Canada. But the GNBC, which manages the name changes of geographical sites in the country, celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.
Although the GNBC is the national coordinating body, the role and process for naming (or renaming) geographic features rests primarily with the provinces and territories. Anyone can propose to change the name of a geographic feature by contacting the local authority in the jurisdiction where the feature is located. Requests often come from individuals and community groups.
“There’s a misunderstanding with GNBC that there’s an office somewhere where people make up place names (and) we just stamp them on maps,” Wyatt Anderson said. “But the council is a harmonization office that captures that information; the stories and the place name changes come from the citizens, from the Canadians.
Wyatt Anderson has an infectious enthusiasm for this process – the practicality and popularness of naming (or renaming) a community place name.
“I love contribution, I love conversation and citizen research,” she said. “The more people talk, the more there is a flurry of entries. And the name of the place has to be omnipresent so that people put it in their hearts, integrate it into their own communities, ask good questions, move forward.
Prince Edward Island is one of the most high-profile proposed name changes in Canada. In April of this year, the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island voted unanimously to pass a motion urging Ottawa to change the name of Canada’s longest and most expensive bridge from Pont de the Confederacy at Epekwitk Crossing.
According to the motion, “it is of the utmost importance that Indigenous languages be respected and recognized”. Epekwitk is the Mi’kmaq word for “cradle on water”, and it is the traditional name the Mi’kmaq have long used to describe the island.
The renaming of the Confederation Bridge is an example of what Wyatt Anderson calls historic “filling the gaps”.
“There have been a lot of gaps in our history as a country, and part of those gaps has been looking at a noticeable missing Indigenous voice in much of our history as Canadians,” she said. . “People are starting to wonder why particular communities or landmarks are called as they are when they don’t reflect all of our stories.”
Here in Toronto, we are experiencing seismic changes in place names to better reflect the times. This year alone, Toronto Metropolitan University became the first post-secondary institution in Canada to change its name amid controversy over the legacy of the school’s original namesake.
For years, officials have faced calls to change the name of the old Ryerson University because of Egerton Ryerson’s ties to residential schools in Canada. The controversy came to a head last June when protesters toppled a statue of Ryerson after a protest honoring the more than 200 children whose remains were discovered at the site of the former boarding school in Kamloops, Columbia. British.
Meanwhile, a block south of TMU, one of Toronto’s main thoroughfares is under consideration for a new name. Last summer, the city voted in favor of a motion to rename Dundas Street, along with its two subway stations, a library, Yonge-Dundas Square and several parks. Henry Dundas was a late 18th century Scottish politician associated with the transatlantic slave trade. A new name for the street is expected to be announced in early 2023 as part of a larger discussion about how the city honors public spaces.
The vote to rename Dundas Street came after the City Council considered a petition with nearly 14,000 signatures – an example of the type of grassroots movement Wyatt Anderson says leads to the evolution of a place name.
“Democracy is only as strong as its citizens,” she said. “So (the renaming process) is citizenship in action: people asking questions, people wanting to know more, wanting to know more.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to learn, to grow, to fix, to change where we are on this journey as Canadians.”
Corrigendum – June 20, 2022: This article has been edited to correct Connie Wyatt Anderson’s name.