Stupidity on the “Salish Sea”

You might think it doesn’t really matter, much, what we call a place. After all, in recorded history, there have always been autochthonous people in place when newcomers came a-calling. Change the civilisation of those callers, and the place names change. We don’t, for instance, call the Mediterranean Sea Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”) any longer, and not just because we don’t speak Latin: the name itself has changed to “between the lands”. So, too, the place where I was born: from Toronto, to Fort Rouseille, to York, and back to Toronto. Names, in other words, change.

So why, then, be so vociferous — “stupidity” isn’t exactly a kind way to put things — about the latest bit of nomenclature adjustment that’s being proposed, that of changing the Strait of Georgia to the Salish Sea? Especially since, given the Premier’s enthusiastic taking up of this little bit of British Columbian change, it is likely to come to be, whether the public thinks much of it (in media web site instant polls and on phone-in shows) or not? (As Premier Campbell noted, “you don’t hear too many people referring to the Queen Charlotte Islands any more” — the renaming to Haida Gw’aii has taken over.)

Here’s the reason why I think this is an exercise in change for the sake of change, which is always a sign of a dangerous lack of thought: “how do we know that this is a historical name at all?” For it seems to me that there is a world of difference between reverting to a name that was in common use where the population at large remains in the majority (Haida Nation), and picking a name that might be appropriate simply for the sake of politically correct nomenclature (and whatever advantage in negotiations for treaties and in the next election it might bring). The first settles something in a way most can accept; the second merely opens the door to competing renamings.

(We will say nothing about the fact that this body of water is a strait and not a sea: it is not an open body of salt water of sufficient size to warrant that term, geographically. Pedantry isn’t needful or desirable here.)

It doesn’t take long to realise, here in BC, just how diverse the linguistic groups and First Nations communities are. The Coast Salish are just one of the many groups that are tied to the ebbs and flows of life in and around the Strait of Georgia. True, these predominate right on the shores of this body of water, but they are not exclusive, nor were the pre-colonisation “First Nations” geographically territorial in the sense that Western nations are. So, by renaming, we choose sides. We declare, in public, that we support one set of claims. Now what do we do for competing claims? Live with the years of animosity this brings forth? Or keep on with the renaming? When two claims conflict over the same territory — as many do in this province — which name “wins”?

In other words, this apparently simple step of “honouring” the First Nations opens a can of worms even worse than the treaty process has opened.

Why should we be surprised? Ever since Trudeau made multiculturalism the official policy of this land, we have tripped over this issue of recognition ever since. Recognise one group — for the whole idea of multiple cultures living independently in a single territory is all about groups — and you offend another. Picking the larger group alienates the smaller. (Why is it that the majority group of basic unhypenated Canadians never seems to be chosen? Ah, because to choose them is to expose the flaw of group-thinking and group-manipulation at the heart of multiculturalism, and indeed at the heart of Canadian progressivism and liberalism.)

This is why, for instance, Montréal accepted the change from Dorchester Boulevard to Boulevard René Lévesque — it was in accord with the majority’s will — and why Iqaluit could replace “Frobisher Bay” (majority population and language). But “Salish Sea” doesn’t fit this mould. First, it’s not in the autochthonic language needed, the way Haida Gw’aii was, and, second, the majority of the population around these shores — unlike the inhabitants of the Queen Charlottes — isn’t of that tradition. So this will be a bit of social engineering imposed on the region, not something springing authentically out of it.

Not that that will matter. The armies of the politically correct will be all over this one, as will those First Nations band members and supporters who see an issue with which to demand more. So, too, those amongst us (and they are many) who don’t believe in the value of tradition (and names are symbols that embody traditions and history), don’t think history is relevant, and are browbeaten and will not defend their own heritage. The cries of bigotry will be raised — is it an attempt at apartheid or ghetto-construction to simply say “my traditions count, too”? — and the earthworms will undermine the ground Canada stands on, once again. The group will once again override the sovereignty of the individual Canadian.

Worse, we will live through this change simply because an advantage is perceived, not because of any great moral principle at work (despite all the claims to the contrary that will emerge as the debate is joined). The labelling of this body of water as the “Salish Sea” is akin to selling the rights to a well-loved landmark and having its name changed to suit some corporate sponsor. Ask Torontonians, who saw the Pantages turn into the Canon Theatre, or the SkyDome into the Rogers Centre. Only a fool would have renamed the Montréal Forum or Maple Leaf Gardens; new buildings have sponsored monikers, but the historical sites do not.

This overriding of tradition in the name of advantage — pecuniary or otherwise — tears away at the fabric of society. It makes people care less about their communities (yet another source of escalating crime and violence, as people draw their curtains and live privately, ignoring the public realm). It destroys the well-springs of commitment. We are left with far less of ourselves each time this is done.

For once, the Left has understood this: the BC NDP is questioning the rush to rename. Good! This should be questioned — and in the end, rejected. For here’s the reality: colonial immigrants built this place. The First Nations culture of the rainforest and coast was one of the highest ones in North America — but still, not enough to make the jump into modernity without what the colonisers brought to this place.

It is our tradition that should for once be stood up for, not denigrated and cast aside to pander yet again. “Strait of Georgia” is but one of many symbols that say exactly that, and that is what I will call it, going forward, regardless of what my province might choose to ram down my throat.

For I am a free Canadian, and they can’t take my right to disagree publicly away.

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