Every day, it seems, another statue comes down.
From crowds pulling down monuments to Confederate leaders in the United States to painting John A. MacDonald red here in Canada, there is a reckoning happening for the problematic figures of the past and the monuments and places built to honour them.
It’s also prompted a reckoning on place names and the people they’re named after.
Here in Canada, many provinces (and Canada itself) are named for misspellings of Indigenous words and phrases (Saskatchewan, Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec). Others are named as “new versions” of European places — here’s looking at you, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Still others are named for royalty (Alberta, Prince Edward Island).
Then there’s British Columbia.
The recent Wet’suwet’en territory dispute in northern B.C. renewed discussions of Indigenous land and title, and who has the right to name and claim the land known as B.C.
In a February 2020 column for the Victoria Times Colonist, Nicholas XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton and John Price argued that a resurgence of Indigenous sovereignty movements showed it was time to reconsider B.C.’s name.
“The struggle of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs to assert sovereignty over their land highlights the urgency of not only getting rid of ‘British Columbia,’ but also having settlers in this province recognize that the lands they work and play on remain Indigenous, never ceded, never conquered,” they argued.
The discussion of problematic historic figures like Christopher Columbus has renewed calls for the renaming. In a June 16 column for the Tyee, Crawford Killian argued that if there ever was a time to rebrand “it is now.”
“The name fails to acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples here before Europeans arrived, implicitly honours England’s racist colonizers, and explicitly lionizes Christopher Columbus,” Killian writes.
Is it time to reconsider one of Canada’s most colonial-named provinces?
How B.C. got its name
The first part makes sense — B.C. was a British colony. The land came under British control in 1846 with the signing of the Treaty of Oregon between the British and American governments, although Indigenous people were not consulted. During treaty discussions, the British argued that Captain Cook and Captain Vancouver had “discovered” B.C. along similar lines that Christopher Columbus had “discovered” America.
The southern part of the area now known as British Columbia was called “Columbia,” after the Columbia River, which originates in the province’s Rocky Mountains before snaking across the U.S. border into Washington state. B.C.’s central region was given the name of “New Caledonia” by explorer Simon Fraser. But to avoid confusion with Colombia in South America and the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean, Queen Victoria named the area British Columbia when it became a colony in 1858.
The Columbia river got its name from, unsurprisingly, Christopher Columbus. Specifically, it’s named for the American ship of Captain Robert Gray, who travelled in the area. The ship, the Columbia Rediviva, was named after Christopher Columbus.
And yes, that’s the same guy whose statue is being pulled down across the U.S.
Opponents of the monuments to Columbus argue the explorer’s violent exploitation and colonization of Indigenous people is not something to celebrate. Columbus Day, a statutory holiday in the U.S., was recently renamed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in recognition of the pain and harm caused by Columbus and other explorers.
Previous calls to rename the province
It’s not completely out of left field to demand a new name for B.C. — thousands of Canadian geographical designations change every year for various reasons. Kitchener, Ont. used to be called Berlin. The Queen Charlotte Islands off B.C.’s coast were renamed Haida Gwaii in 2009 to reflect Indigenous territory.
In 2008, Victoria resident Ben Pires pitched the idea of renaming B.C. to then-premier Gordon Campbell and the B.C. legislature. He argued the name is neither historically accurate, nor inclusive of the province itself.
Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun called for the renaming of B.C. in a 2016 art exhibition “Unceded Territories.”
“Why do we have British Columbia? Why do we have to have this name when they’ve never paid for it? This is our land. This is First Nations territories,” Yuxweluptun said in a video highlighting the project.
“This is traditional native land, this is a province that belongs to native people. But we are held hostage on reservations.”
Whenever calls to rename B.C. reemerge, so do discussions of possible new, less problematic names.
A frequent option is some version of Cascadia or New Cascadia, in reference to the bioregion of the Pacific Northwest. That’s a name that’s been co-opted by some western independence movements that argue for an autonomous nation comprised of B.C, Washington and Oregon.
In 2018, the Vancouver Courier newspaper solicited possible new names from readers, garnering suggestions ranging from Sasquatchia to South Alaska to Chinook to Pacifica.
“Why do we have British Columbia? Why do we have to have this name when they’ve never paid for it.”
Many people have suggested Indigenous names for the land known as B.C. in order to reflect its unceded nature. The majority of B.C. is not covered under treaties
How do you change a name?
Putting the wheels in motion to change a province’s name wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In 1996, the Northwest Territories began exploring a name change for the territory. However, the process was hijacked by pranksters who elevated the suggestion of “Bob” to second place over a variety of local Indigenous names.
The territorial government renewed calls to change the name in 2002, but those quickly fizzled out as well.
Any change to B.C.’s name would likely be brought forward at a provincial level and voted on through referendum.