canada's racist geography and what we can do about it
My research requires me to be exposed to terrible things on a consistent basis. This is because of how terrible the discrimination was, and still is, for Black people in Alberta.
Often times, the historical material are disturbing articles that paint Black people as lazy, violent, or unintelligent. Eventually, I became desensitized to the material. I knew the things I came across were terrible but i’d simply catalogue them and move forward.
When I was looking into John Ware, a famous cowboy and Black Albertan, I noticed that a ridge was named after him that was called “Nigger John ridge.” This made me question - are there other sites in Canada with similar names?
This lead me to the Canadian Geographical name database where I put in some racial slurs and ended up with a couple dozen results - some official and some historic. Here are some examples. Look through them before I explain why these names are common.
How White Canadian’s Remember Black Canadians.
The most important thing to understand is that Canada has an extensive anti-Black history that is relatively unknown to most Canadian’s. For example, Canada practiced slavery for more than 200 years (emancipation day was yesterday), segregation was common, along with race riots targeting Black communities.
Understanding this history allows us to understand the ways White Canadians viewed and continue to view Black people. For starters, this historical legacy comes from a process practiced during slavery. Where Black people were robbed of their full names and simply referred to as “Nigger [firstname]” or “Negro [Firstname].”
Most of the geographical locations listed above come from this practice. This is because the sites were often named after Black people who lived near the area or named after events involving Black people.
Often times these events were rooted in tragedy. One example is “Nigger Rapids” on the Gatineau River. The rapids are named after a Black couple that tragically drowned in the early 1900s. Instead of honouring them with their full names, the white residents made the conscious choice to name their final resting place after an anti-Black slur.
Because of this we don’t know much about that couple and their lives. The White residents succeeded in dehumanizing them even in death.
Unfortunately, the ancestors of those residents still defend that name. Below is an interview from a resident defending the name.
"It was meant to describe the people who died," LeBlanc said. "There was no pejorative connotation then as there is now."
LeBlanc said that no formal request by residents has been made to change the name of the rapids but that the commission is considering whether it should rename all 11 sites that include the racial slur.
Claire Hamel, who lives near the rapids, said the official name is not a source of controversy among locals.
"Nobody talks about this," she said. "It's the name, that's it. Like Bouchette, like Maniwaki, like Ottawa."
Bouchette Mayor Réjean Major told Radio-Canada he has no intention of asking the commission to change the name of the rapids.”
I’m surprised that the journalist did not press the resident. It’s clear that the name of the rapids are not like “Bouchette” or “Maniwaki.” These are emotionless slurs that were racist then and are racist now.
Anyways, you can clearly see these examples in sites like “Negro Point” in Saint John’s which was named after the Hodges family. A family of Black loyalists. Or ‘Negro Brook’ which was renamed ‘Harriet O’Ree Road’ after a Black woman who lived nearby.
The other sites on the list come from similar sources. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to learn about who the sites are named after due to their full name - and thus their stories - being robbed from our history.
What did Black people think about this practice?
John Ware, mentioned above, was a famous Albertan cowboy. He was born into slavery and worked in a ranch once he gained freedom. Ware used this opportunity to learn the skills necessary to become a rancher. He eventually drove 3,000 cattles into Southern Alberta and established his own ranch.
His life story is amazing and you can read more here:
However, to White Calgarians, he was known as ‘Nigger John.’ This was not a name that John Ware preferred despite myths spread by the White residents. Below is an excerpt from Cheryl Foggo describing how John Ware felt about this word
To Calgarians he was known as “Nigger John.” The myth that he accepted the name, to his face, as a term of affection persists to this day. In 1960, after decades of enduring several landmarks in the Brooks area being named “Nigger John,” two of his children, Bob and Nettie, wrote letters, cajoled and finally worked the media in order to remove the offending word from the titles of the places named in his honour. “No one called my father ‘Nigger John’,” said Nettie. “Not to his face. The only time I saw someone do it was in Calgary - and that man ended up in hospital. But Father paid his bill.”
Still, they chose to name a ridge after him called ‘Nigger John Ridge." A name that would last until 1970. In addition, a 4-H club existed called the "Nigger John Club".
Regardless, this example clearly shows how this practice was not remotely morally acceptable then or now. Any suggestions that these names honour Black Canadians are not based in truth but instead represent a revisionist history meant to preserve anti-Black discrimination.
Impacts on research
The robbery of Black peoples names makes historical research difficult. This is because historic Black figures are either nameless or only have their first name listed. This makes it extremely hard to look into their lives and find out who they were.
One example is “Nigger Molly” - one of the first female settlers in Medicine Hat. Unfortunately, the historical record rarely describes her by her full name. Instead, it took historians like Cheryl Foggo painstaking research in order to find her real name - Molly Smith.
I encourage you to read the article below. Her life was very interesting since she owned a laundry business and had an intense rivalry with another laundry store owner.
I hope by now you understand how troubling these names are and how they don't provide respect for the Black people the sites are named after. With this new knowledge, I encourage you to look at the list and contact the authority responsible for the names.
Also keep in mind that these names only include natural geographical places. They do not include things like street names, buildings, or parks. So take some time to look into your city and see what else is out there.
And if you find something, demand that the name is changed and use this new knowledge to fight against defenders of this practice. If you face difficulties just consider the Quebec example. Instead of resting in rapids named after a racial slur, they’ll be resting in a site that humanizes them and honors their name.