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A B.C. First Nation’s 3-year effort to change a city’s name

Powell River’s name currently reflect a man whose main goal was to assimilate Indigenous people
An aerial shot of the Tla’amin community of t̓išosəm (tishosum), meaning “where the waters run milky with herring spawn.” (Courtesy of Georgia Coombs)

It was first in May 2021 that the idea for Powell River to change its name was brought forward to city officials in the coastal B.C. community.

What followed, however, were bureaucratic delays and heightened tension among residents, leaving some wondering if their recommendations toward reconciliation becoming more than just words would ever actually become reality.

For Harmony Johnson, changing the name of the community she is from – which currently reflects a man whose main goal was to assimilate Indigenous people – is not only a task that her chief, Hegus John Hackett, asked her to lead but also a way to reduce the harm of that legacy that undermines the dignity of Johnson and her fellow Tla’amin Nation members.

“We don’t want the name of the town and the interactions (of some community members) to undermine our dignity. We want to be who we are in our territories – which we have since time immemorial – and that’s what we’re trying to reclaim here,” Johnson told Black Press Media in a phone interview from her home in Tla’amin.

Johnson, who splits her time between North Vancouver and Tla’amin Nation, served as co-chair of a joint working group between the city and the Nation and created recommendations on how to implement such a monumental change.

But around the time of the 2022 municipal election, Johnson and the group called for a cooling-off period as tensions rose and divisiveness took hold in the community.

“We have to issue warnings to our people, ‘Hey, it might be hot in town because of the comments that have been made about your identity and your language.’ It’s horrible.”

It’s now been three years since Tla’amin Nation’s efforts first began, and there’s not much to show for it in a way of tangible change, she said.

During a February council meeting, the city’s mayor and council voted to kick the decision down the road to the next civic election.

“We’re still kind of in the middle of, I guess, whether this is a decision or not. It’s astounding. It’s taking too long.”

Now, in 2024, Johnson wonders “if not now, when?”

Israel Wood Powell: The man behind the name

This isn’t the first time the Nation has called for a civic body to update its name.

In 2018, the qathet Regional District underwent its renaming to rid of its connection to Israel Wood Powell, the namesake of the community

“Everybody had been quite proud of the fact that, you know, ‘Aren’t we so progressive? We have this agreement and we have a process by which our governments coordinate and work together.’ That was a long effort to reach that place of creating a respectful protocol and a process for us to come together,” Johnson said.

Powell River is named after Israel Wood Powell. Born in Ontario in 1836, he was appointed as the superintendent of B.C.’s newly formed Department of Indian Affairs in 1872.

For the next 17 years, he pursued “policies aimed at assimilating Indigenous peoples into settler Canadian society,” according to a document provided to the city. The year after he retired, a residential school opened in Kamloops and became one of the largest schools operated by Indian Affairs.

A man sits with an “I heart PR” – PR meaning Powell River – during an open mic roundtable event at the Evergreen Theatre May 11, 2022. (Image Courtesy of Abby Francis)

Ace Harry, 22, grew up on Tla’amin Nation and Powell River and recently returned to live there. She says a name change would fundamentally recognize the presence of her people and their children.

“Residential schools were built upon the idea of denying the very existence of Native children. And today, our foster care system and child apprehension systems … rely upon the ignorance of the general population to the very existence of these kids.”

Some people in the community have taken on the slogan, “I heart PR,” – ‘PR’ meaning Powell River – by putting stickers on vehicles, as well as on a billboard in the city. That push, Harry says, seeks to deny and extinguish the very existence of her people.

“But again, that was explicitly taught for a very long time. It’s going to require an incredible amount of work for any individual to deprogram those racist assumptions, let alone entire communities and especially at the pace that was being demanded.”

Racism was ‘right below the surface’

First Nations across the country have called for name restorations – from buildings and schools, to streets and even islands – amid the 94 recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

Following the name-change request in May 2021, the city and Tla’amin Nation established a joint working group, made up of elected officials and appointees to oversee a “community conversation” about the proposal.

The working group conducted engagement meetings between March and June 2022, before releasing its final report on July 15, 2022. It included 11 recommendations.

What came next, however, was a “fire hose of racism,” Johnson said, leading to the group being forced to take pause. There was also the upcoming 2022 civic election.

“Trust and safety did erode at that time and has continued to feel very tenuous.”

The committee was worried for people’s safety – emotionally, culturally, psychologically and physically.

Harmony Johnson, who was part of the joint working group for Powell River’s possible name change, an adjunct professor at UBC and studies racism for a living and has authored numerous reports on how racism intersects with inequities in health care. (Courtesy of Davis McKenzie)

Johnson is an adjunct professor at UBC and studies racism for a living and has authored numerous reports on how racism intersects with inequities in health care. Reflecting on the response to the group’s efforts was “probably the most hurtful and overt processes where racism was just right there,” she said.

“It showed that this is right below the surface and maybe we think that these polite forums where we have intergovernmental relations are making a difference – and they are in some ways in some of those personal relationships. But the reality is is that is not everywhere in our society yet.”

In January of this year, the name-change project that had been seemingly put on pause was brought back to the forefront, during a council meeting that drew provincial attention.

On a Jan. 30 committee of the whole meeting, Coun. Jim Palm drew ire after using a made-up Tla’amin word to refer to what the city could be renamed to.

“Step one is ‘Are you in favour of a name change?’ Yes or no. That’s simple. You don’t convolute it with ‘Wakawana’ or whatever name comes out of Tla’amin. You just simply ask the question and get a response. Yes or no, and then we have a direction,” Palm said at the time.

The Nation denounced the comment a few days later, followed by similar statements from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the First Nations Leadership Council.

B.C’s Indigenous Relations Minister Murray Rankin said he was hopeful that Palm – who had issued an apology to some news publications at that point – would learn from the work the community, city and Tla’amin Nation had already put in.

While Palm’s comments put a lot of focus on the ongoing process, not all of that attention has been good.

Since his Jan. 30 comment, letters started circulating in the community from “concerned citizens.” One such letter, posted by the Nation on its website, said Tla’amin’s “attack” on Palm was “just one more unwarranted reason why reconciliation and your misconceptions of what the truth is, is causing division between people.”

READ MORE: B.C. councillor under fire for using made-up Indigenous word in renaming talks

The city released a statement apologizing to the Nation, adding it wishes to “continue serious conversations about furthering all aspects of reconciliation.”

It’s been more than three months. Johnson says there’s a dichotomy in the community between the lack of safety in some areas and the tenseness associated with that, juxtaposed with the moments of caring for and celebrating one another.

But she says there is still support in the community, pointing to Sunday’s memorial march for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and this past week’s Nation assembly, which informs people of the work of Tla’amin.

Resident Brodie Jacob speaks on June 1, 2022 in favour of a name change holding a vase of orange flowers in memory of children lost at Indian residential schools, a part of Israel Powell’s legacy. (Courtesy of Abby Francis)

Recommending against a referendum

On Jan. 16, the city tabled strategic priorities, including taking “real steps towards a name change.” A month later, council voted to include the topic as a referendum in the 2026 municipal election.

This decision came despite one of the original recommendations from Johnson and the working group, which found that a referendum was not a necessary way to enact a renaming, as municipalities have most of the authority around renaming its city.

“In many ways, referendums are demonstrated very clearly to be very harmful, and divisive exercises,” Johnson said, pointing to the then-B.C. Liberal’s 2002 referendum on First Nations treaty rights.

Elections – including the upcoming provincial election in the fall – will continue to be factors that shape the conversation, Johnson added.

“Some of this is just like the tide: It’s going to come in and change is going to occur and it’ll become normalized, and it’ll just become how we think about the place.”

Working toward reviving the Sliammon language

While it has been three years since this process first began, it remains in very early stages; possible names haven’t yet been formally put forward or even recommended by the Nation.

Tla’amin chief Hegus John Hackett told Black Press Media in February that the ball is in the city’s court, especially following Palm’s comment.

“There’s a lot of speculation from the city that we’re gonna rename it something that’s hard to pronounce, and I think that’s kind of where Jim Palm’s mockery might be coming from.”

Hackett says Tla’amin is a progressive nation and efforts are being made to revive their language, Sliammon.

“We’re trying to re-establish place names. And with that work, it’s really brought our community together in a positive way.”

Last August, Ace Harry lost her grandmother, the second-oldest speaker in Tla’amin Nation and “one of the biggest powerhouses of knowledge that we had left.”

“That’s really kind of shoved my face into the urgency of the kind of issues that we’re working with.”

For Harry, though, she has “lukewarm feelings” toward a renaming, pointing to “darker problems coming at a much faster pace,” such as climate change.

“There are just other issues that I think would force settlers and their children to reckon with the existence of Indigenous people that aren’t completely focused on language.”

Names changes elsewhere in Canada

Powell River isn’t the first municipality to look into name changes or restorations of previous names.

There are several communities in B.C. that have also changed various landmarks and buildings, including a Nanaimo elementary school and another school in Port Alberni that was named after a federal Indian Agent for the West Coast of Vancouver Island and was involved in the operation of the Alberni Indian Residential School.

In Cowichan, officials are looking to rename a creek.

The Village of Daajing Giids (formerly Queen Charlotte City) restored its traditional Haida name in July 2022.

READ MORE: Province announces historic decision to restore ancestral name in Haida Gwaii

Daajing Giids Mayor Lisa Pineault said the process took about three years from when the village was asked by Skidegate Haida Immersion Program to change the name. The change was just one request that the program has been working on for many years.

And more than a decade before that, the name Haida Gwaii was restored to the grouping of more than 150 islands off of B.C.’s north coast. Meaning “Islands of the People,” Haida Gwaii had already been in use for years leading up to the official restoration.

READ MORE: Elementary school in Port Alberni given Nuu-chah-nulth name

The Regional District was gifted the word qathet – meaning working together – by Tla’amin Nation in June 2017. By the following year, the province had issued its official approval for the requested name change.

The Geographical Names Board of Canada says between 2023 and 2024, British Columbia rescinded the names of nine geographical features, as the names contained “various derogatory terms.” Those features are currently undergoing renaming processes.

Halfway across the country, Tom Terry was part of a group in the Ontario community of Sioux Lookout that pushed to rename an island that had inherited a derogatory English name for Indigenous women.

It is now known as Equay Minis, meaning Woman Island.

He says the group received minimal push back. But fighting for that progress is important.

“When the colonial governments proceeded with their efforts at mapping land, often the Indigenous names, if they were difficult to pronounce … they were often discarded, and new names were provided in their place.”

Indigenous place names are often rich in history, evoking a legend, personal experience or even a humorous story. A name should resonate with people, he says.

“When Indigenous people talk about the relationship with the land, that’s a very genuine, very rich relationship which many non-Indigenous people have a hard time appreciating and respecting or acknowledging and understanding.”

A hope for an easier path forward in the future

Johnson hopes it only becomes easier and streamlined to make these important changes in the future.

“The first thing to go through is often not the fastest.”

B.C.’s Municipal Affairs Ministry works with local governments and First Nations with the understanding that each community will approach the decision differently; the province’s oversight is to ensure the process is collaborative, the ministry said in an emailed statement.

For Johnson, that streamlined process will help better the lives of Indigenous people and help curb the deeply-rooted systemic and institutionalized colonialism.

“I’m glad that Tla’amin is on the forefront of this. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done as a joint working group. I’m anxious to see that work come to fruition and I hope that that work creates a path – an easier path – for others in in the work that they’ll need to undertake.”

As an educator, Johnson likens the need to streamline these kinds of processes to the work done in adding carved out curriculum dedicated to normalizing conversations about racism, colonialism and Indigenous languages.

“I think this is just a matter of time for that generation to be to be the leaders of tomorrow that are making the changes naturally, without question. But I do think that there’s barriers we can remove today so that we don’t have to wait 20 years for that generation to do the right thing.”

Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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