Baden-Powell, Trutch, Begbie among landmark names with troubling histories
VANCOUVER -- As statues are vandalized and place names of troubling historical figures come under scrutiny during the anti-racism movement underway around the world, a local historian says Metro Vancouver has its own grim history reflected in its names and landmarks.
John Atkin has studied the complex history throughout the region and says while the vandalism of Captain George Vancouver’s statue at city hall is likely a reflection of anger over the explorer’s participation in the colonial system rather than any racist actions, there are still plenty of local names with ugly associations.
"You read many historical accounts and (Vancouver’s) interaction with Indigenous people he encountered was actually fairly good," he explained, as opposed to figures like Richard McBride and Joseph Trutch.
Each have streets named after them and both are reviled for slashing reserve lands assigned to First Nations in the province. A statue of Matthew Baillie Begbie, who became known as the "Hanging Judge" for wrongfully sentencing and hanging six aboriginal chiefs in the 1860s, was removed from the New Westminster courthouse. But a Vancouver elementary school still bears his name.
"We are still on unceded territory and what we name and how we name has an impact on not only us, but on those that are still here and were here first," insisted Atkin."It's a colonial history and there are still vestiges that are out in the public sphere."
They include Gladstone Secondary School, named after a wealthy British politician whose family was involved in the slave trade and fought the abolition of slavery in parliament, prompting a modern-day member of Canada’s parliament to call for change.
"I think people who are associated with slavery or other odious policies or crimes against humanity shouldn't have buildings named after them," said East Vancouver MP Don Davies, who points out the man never stepped foot in Canada and has no ties to the area. "History does change and our values change and we can't be afraid to change with them. I think we have to be prepared to act because it's not just about words, it's about having the courage as a society."
A name that has avoided scrutiny locally is in the crosshairs of anti-racism activists in the United Kingdom. Robert Baden-Powell is best known for establishing the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, but some historians have described him as homophobic, racist and an admirer of Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler. A town in England is taking down his statue as officials worry it’ll be vandalized by Black Lives Matter activists.
From Brussels to Montreal, Virginia to Vancouver, public officials and taxpayers alike are debating the costs and logistics of not just removing problematic or outright disturbing historical figures, but also renaming schools, parks and major roadways; Dundas Street, one of Toronto’s longest and included in hundreds of business, service and place-names is one example.
But Atkin says we shouldn’t be daunted by the scope of the changes many are seeking – or simply brush aside the idea as best left alone.
"History never stands still. We're always learning, we're always digging up new things," he said.
"By not dealing with it, we're almost acquiescing or accepting the actions of that person."