In the City of Vancouver, place names are being taken far more seriously than ever before.
That’s a good thing — because many of our city’s streets and public assets are currently named after historical bigots and racists, which isn’t ideal.
Indeed, there’s a growing sense that names, as a form of memorialization, do something profound in our societies. They shape our public spaces, communicate values, and also risk undermining positive efforts to reconcile or heal from oppressive pasts.
Prior to 2012, the City of Vancouver had no formal process for choosing the names assigned to publicly owned assets. To address this, it created an advisory committee called the Civic Asset Naming Committee, a project spearheaded by former city councillor Andrea Reimer.
Before the committee was created, all the names for City of Vancouver assets were handled by a staff committee, explained John Atkin, a former chair of the committee and civic historian.
The way it used to be, “the engineering department and the city surveyor [would] show up and say, ‘I need a name for these streets,’ and the staff threw some ideas around and out they came with the names,” Atkin said. “The  committee was set up to shift how we did things and to bring a broader perspective to naming.”
The mandate of the committee, Atkin said, is to “name civic assets through the lens of diversity and break out of honouring the settler culture as we’ve done in the past.”
Reimer defines civic asset as “a piece of land, a sidewalk, a street, a building, a bench. A tangible thing that the city owns and manages.” City parks and schools don’t count, as each has their own board and process for renaming.
Vancouver’s committee currently has nine members: five drawn from the general public, and one individual each from the Vancouver Historical Society, the Vancouver Public Space Network, the Cultural Communities Advisory Committee and the Urban Indigenous Peoples’ Advisory Committee.
The Civic Asset Naming Committee is supported by three non-voting members: two city council liaisons and a staff liaison.
Every two years the committee disbands for a few months, giving members the option to reapply or move on, and new people the chance to get involved.
A new committee was recently formed. Several members, like Atkin, are returning after serving for a number of years. And after the recent municipal election, the council liaisons will feature some fresh faces.
The committee has four official meetings a year, said Mali Bain, a member for the past four years who rejoined the committee for its next term.
In addition to these official meetings, the group holds several informal working meetings throughout the year, where most of the difficult discussions, research and brainstorming about names take place. No official minutes for these meetings are recorded.
If you only look at the minutes for official meetings on the committee webpage, it would be easy to assume that the process of naming is quick and simple.
But according to Atkin, Bain and Reimer, the reality is much more complex.
Reimer, who served as a city council liaison on the committee from 2012-2018, said the process of choosing names can be “anguishing.”
“A lot of the discussion [about names] is about male supremacy, white supremacy, class and privilege. These are really chunky, tough topics, and they all land right in the middle of every naming discussion,” she said.
Bain agreed with this assessment. “It’s a bit like naming a child,” she said. “It feels like it’s got significance. And some of the decisions are actually not all that rational, and there’s a diversity of opinions and a lot of things to take into account.”
One of the largest problems the committee faces is that it works slowly, and there are relatively few new assets to name in any given year.
“New streets only come once in a while,” Bain said. “And it takes a while to choose names.”
Even after a name is chosen, Bain said, it can take a year or more before the name is actually placed on a building or street, and changes in development plans may mean that certain names never see the light of day.
“The committee never does stuff quickly,” Atkin agreed. “You know, the West End Lanes [naming project], we had the luxury of workshopping that a few times. We spent almost a year and a half working on those names.”
The committee has approved names for approximately 33 civic assets in the seven years of its existence, an average of 4.7 names per year (not counting names where a street was extended and the same name was applied to the new extension).
The committee members say they take the job seriously, and that’s why it takes so long to get a new asset named.
“You don’t ever want to just throw something out because you’re ticking a box, as ‘Oh look at us, we’ve been inclusive.’ That takes away from any meaningful efforts [to be diverse],” Atkin said.
Naming and renaming has a lot of significance for many people. Reimer said she received countless letters during her 10 years as city councillor from people who expressed sadness and frustration that their communities were not represented in names around the city.
For some, this inequality is made even less tolerable while names like Trutch, a racist politician who drastically diminished Indigenous reserve sizes in B.C., still remain in place.
“It’s just so egregious that this person is held up for their achievements, when they did so many bad things. On top of that a young Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese or South Asian child, they see nothing as they walk to school or travel around the city that validates their families and their culture’s contribution to Vancouver,” Reimer said.
The City of Vancouver acknowledged this imbalance recently, approving a new policy in late 2018 around renaming public assets. (According to Atkin and Bain, members have not yet figured out how this renaming policy will impact their work, as the policy was approved after the last committee’s meeting.)
So why does renaming really matter, and what does it do?
“Renaming a place or removing a statue is not erasing history, it’s a means of reckoning with the ongoing legacies of these figures in the present,” said Reuben Rose-Redwood.
Rose-Redwood, an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Victoria, has spent more than a decade thinking and writing about place naming.
He believes that removing problematic place names is necessary for reconciliation and can actually contribute to a better sense of history and community.
Rose-Redwood acknowledged that while renaming streets is only a first step, it is a critical one.
“Renaming a place or removing a statue is a good first step towards addressing the broader issues that need to be dealt with; it’s not the end result.”
But, he asked, “if we can’t rename a two-block-long street in Victoria, then how are we going to deal with all the other, larger reconciliation issues in the city?”
Rose-Redwood also urges us to think critically about who is given the authority to rename, particularly in B.C. “I think we’re reckoning with [our settler] past and trying to move forward in a way that is not only respectful to Indigenous people but actually gives them the authority to name the places in their own territories.”
Added Reimer: “What happened in Vancouver is you had settlers arrive, they took off the Indigenous names and the people, moved them off the land. And then in a very short period of time, like a number of years, not decades, they put a whack of names on the land. So, they were literally choosing family names and children’s names, because they ran out of names.... If you agree that erasing names is bad, we have this seminal, foundational erasure of names that needs to be rectified [in Vancouver’s history].”
Rose-Redwood wants us to ask ourselves and our governments “who should get to decide what the name of a place should be, who should have that authority?”
In fact, this is one area where Vancouver’s Civic Asset Naming Committee could still improve.
Atkin and Bain both said that the naming committee chooses place names without much external input. What research gets done and on which communities is almost entirely determined (and carried out) by committee members.
So far, there hasn’t been any real discussion about actively opening the committee up to a more public process, although some members believe it would increase the diversity of potential names for civic assets.
Bain said that the committee would benefit from increased public engagement, but that there is “zero budget” in the city for the committee, or for naming in general. Active civic engagement requires money and staff time the committee just doesn’t have, she said.
There is a form on the committee website that allows members of the public to suggest names to be considered for use on public assets. So far, “more [names are] suggested by us than by members of the public, and that is not the ideal,” Bain said.
“A lot of the names that do get suggested tend to be like my ancestors, a lot of Caucasian individuals. We tend not to get as much engagement on those platforms from those [marginalized] communities. So that presents a challenge.”
Without citizen input, the inclusion of names from marginalized groups depends entirely on the dedication of committee members, many of whom may not belong to those communities.
Bain would like everyone to take this into their own hands. “A lot of us complain about this at some point, in an abstract way. If you actually think it’s an issue and you have an idea or know some history, suggest something,” she urged.
“This is a call to action: you can really make a difference as an individual. You can suggest a name that gets put on a city street, and that’s pretty cool.”