August 13th, 2009

The Politics of Toponymy

Posted in Canada, Heritage and Preservation, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Rue University Street

Few things are as contentious and politically charged as the names of where we live, so it’s not surprising to see toponymy back in Montreal’s political spotlight, three years after the Park Avenue/Parc Avenue/avenue du Parc debacle. Earlier this week, a variety of nationalist groups began to advocate the renaming of Amherst Street, ostensibly because its namesake, Jeffrey Amherst, an officer of the British Army who helped conquer Quebec in 1760, advocated the genocide of North America’s native peoples.

Fair enough, I guess. There has long been a movement to give Lionel Groulx the boot from the St. Henri metro station that bears his name because of what he thought and said about Jews. Thing is, in the case of both Amherst and Groulx, as much as their beliefs and actions would be unacceptable today, they were in keeping with the general attitudes of their time. Groulx was far from the only anti-Semite in pre-WWII Canada; Amherst was not the only military leader who engaged in despicable tactics to win a war.

Besides, plenty of other unsettling people whose names have been enshrined in the landscape. If we want to get rid of all of the skeletons in our toponymical closet, we have a lot of cleaning to do, starting with Christopher Columbus (genocidal imperialist), René Lévesque (lethal drunk-driver), Maurice Duplessis (corrupt autocrat) and Saint Zotique (he wasn’t even a saint!).

Unfortunately, it turns out that this noble but misguided effort to correct the injustices of the past was just a front for a far more routine agenda: erasing all traces of English from the place names of Montreal. The same people advocating for the renaming of Amherst also want streets such as rue City Councillors, avenue McGill-College and rue University to be translated into French (which would make them rue des Conseillers municipaux, avenue du Collège McGill and rue de l’Université). It harks back to the 1950s and 60s, when many English street names (including Inspector Street, Park Avenue and St. James Street) were translated into French. That practice ended, funnily enough, with the introduction of language laws in 1976, which mandated that all generics ought to be in French, but specifics should remain in their original language.

As a result, Montreal is filled with such wonderful oddities as rue Bridge and chemin Queen-Mary — names that reflect the hybrid linguistic character of the city. Montreal is la deuxième ville francophone du monde, yes, but it is more accurately a product of the complicated relationship between two colonial languages. As a French city, Montreal is little more than a shabby Paris; as an English city, it’s a somewhat cooler Ottawa. But as a bilingual city, with all of the contradictions, tension and uneasiness inherent in that distinction, it is unique: a cultural chameleon that slides easily between histories and identities that remain fixed and unbudging in more linguistically conventional cities. This mixed identity is something we should cherish.


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