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What is in a Name?

The John A Macdonald Statue in Montreal, covered with the message of those hurt by his legacy
The John A Macdonald Statue in Montreal, covered with the message of those hurt by his legacy
The John A Macdonald Statue in Montreal, covered with the message of those hurt by his legacy

What is the power of a name?  Our names can be a reflection of our heritage. They are potentially a link to our past and give a sense of belonging. Knowing someone’s name can provide hints about that person. My last name, van Driesum, is a unique last name shared by fewer than 100 people in the world. I have the unique privilege to be the first Jonah van Driesum in known history. It is a simple last name meaning “from Driesum”, a village in the Netherlands.   While it is not easy for some people to spell or pronounce, I have kept my name to honour my immigrant grandparents.  Sadly, many immigrants feel compelled to change their names to counter discrimination and support their efforts at building a life in Canada. My grandfather, Annius van Driesum, became Andy van Driesum when he immigrated to Canada in order to assimilate and because his given name was unfamiliar to Canadians, sounded too much like a woman’s name, and was similar to the word anus. He was a man who had just spent half a decade fighting a war to free his country from the Nazis, who participated in the Dutch Resistance to protect others’ rights to cultural and religious freedom. His father was murdered in the Buchenwald concentration camp for the same reasons and yet he had to give up part of his identity for his family’s wellbeing.

This experience of pressured or forced assimilation is not unique to post war immigrants.  Since the first arrival of colonial settlers on Canadian shores, Canadians have been renaming everything. Historical sites, communities, and places of religious importance were destroyed and replaced with cities that now bear the names of colonial figures such as Queen Victoria and Captain Vancouver. Forests and rivers once named from the First Nations experience have been turned into logging camps and hydroelectric dams with names of companies and governments replacing the originals.  Canada is built upon a practice of rebranding. Names that were significant and that connected people to ancient history were replaced by those meaningful to the new arrivals.

People as well as places had their identities stripped.  To force assimilation upon immigrants and indigenous people, people were forced to pick new Christian given names as well as to change their clothes and cut their hair. This violence was employed as much as a means of control as for familiarity.  Our names and our history make us who we are, to deny them is to deny ourselves. Names have power. When you take away someone’s name by force, you are killing a part of them. It’s why picking a new name for a trans or non-binary person can be so empowering, because it declares that the person, they were inside all along is now alive in the world.

White men like to put their names and images on everything: money, institutions of learning and powers, and most commonly statues and monuments. These honours allow names like Macdonald, Laurier, Ryerson, Cook, and many more to live on through the centuries to honour those our society has deemed great men. However, when you put any thought into why these men are being honoured, it becomes clear why those fighting against the legacies of these men are in a just battle.

At first glance, it makes sense to honour many of these people because of the historical significance of the contributions to our political life and institutions. But when you look deeper, you see that within their legacy is the countrywide story of intergenerational trauma that has plagued our history since settlers landed here 600 years ago.

For example, John A. Macdonald was our first Prime Minister. He helped found our country and built political systems that have lasted nearly 200 years. He also illegally seized land from indigenous people, allowed the execution of political opponents (Louis Riel, who is also a figure with a complicated legacy), and suppressed political opposition through underhanded tactics. While we must continue to teach about John A. Macdonald and other figures in schools, we should not be honouring them by attaching their name to our institutions of government, education and service. Macdonald’s name is reflective of a part of our history which includes genocide.  He should be remembered, but not be immortalized or idolized.

Another name controversy has emerged with our schools. Even large-scale institutions that have names honouring individuals must reassess keeping their names, as they show themselves to be against the values they claim to uphold—for example, Ryerson University. Egerton Ryerson was a prominent advocate for public education in our country, and he helped found a women’s elementary system. He also used his influence to become the primary driver of the residential school system and used his power to keep women out of higher learning institutions. There is resistance to removing these names.  Some say that they have become identifiers and are familiar, arguing the changes will be confusing.  But change can also spark an important conversation.

Even if a majority of Canadians don’t equate an institutional name with the original honouree, maintaining that name does nothing to repair the damage done to a people. Their existence continues to honour the root cause of large-scale intergenerational trauma in Canada: the residential school system. Multiple government studies, including the Truth and Reconciliation Report, have stated that intergenerational trauma has a central role in the systemic challenges indigenous communities face with drug abuse, mental health and suicide crises amongst their youth, and a lack of economic opportunities. If Ryerson University wants to claim they support indigenous people, how can they do that when they help contribute to societal trauma by offering schooling under the name of the father of the residential school system? We can acknowledge the challenge of change and still value the possibility it brings.

There is power in names and there is power in change. Look at the example of the John A. Macdonald statue that was outside Victoria City Hall. Initially, the city was split because of how the decision of the Mayor and Council was made; without any community consultation. However, the conflict all but disappeared when it became evident that the most vocal supporters were local white nationalists. Even those who disliked the removal became less vocal recognizing those viewpoints were not in line with the current vision of the community.

Considering the scale of harm that figures such as MacDonald, Ryerson, and others contributed to our society their names have power to oppress.  Some will argue that we cannot remove these statues because we are erasing heritage and history. The simple answer to that is no—these men and the symbols honouring them cause irreparable harm.

When we fail to confront the demons in our past, we allow them to control our future. In political conversations around symbols of leaders who caused trauma, the response of those defending keeping the monuments up is that “It is our history” and that you cannot censor it. But by building monuments to individuals and leaving their names attached to institutions we add to a system of re-traumatization and effectively deify men with deeply complicated legacies. Understandably, you would not want a statue in your community of a man who stole children from your community and subjected them to years of abuse. You would not want the battle flag of a pro-slavery army flying at your state capitol if your ancestors were slaves. If those symbols are held up as examples of greatness and morality, how could anyone feel proud of their past.

Names are power.  When we and our places are stripped of our original names it perpetuates trauma and disconnects us from our past, our ancestors, our foundation. I retain my name as a connection to my family history, a sense of where I came from and the struggles faced by those who came before me.  Through consultation, we must allow people to reclaim their lost names and at the same time remove place names that are reminders of past traumas.  Perhaps naming places after people should be removed altogether as a practice.  What and who is celebrated by one generation may be viewed quite differently from a future perspective.