What’s in a Name?
The divisiveness of public commemoration
This month, back in 1858, a forty-nine-year-old candidate for the U.S. Senate had to defend his position on racial justice, after a man approached him in a hotel lobby and asked, somewhat incredulously, “whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people.” That same day, on a public debate stage, the Republican nominee made his position clear: “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” Many decades later, I was born in a city named after that politician, who would lose the Senate battle but go on to win the war.
Locals are proud of Lincoln, with its imposing statue of the Great Emancipator by Daniel Chester French watching over downtown. And even in this period of reckoning, one would be hard pressed to imagine petitions calling for the renaming of Nebraska’s capital. Honest Abe, it seems, enjoys a rarefied seat indeed.
Yet elsewhere, we are again asking ourselves who and what our monuments, public institutions, and place names honour. Some want to rechristen Dundas Street in Toronto, dubbed after Henry Dundas, the “gradual” abolitionist. Some want to take down a 131-year-old likeness of Egerton Ryerson, whose writings helped conceptualize residential schools, in the heart of the university that bears his name. Vancouver’s Instagram-friendly statue of Gassy Jack, who took a twelve-year-old Squamish girl as his wife, has been given the Jackson Pollock treatment. And street signs in Sydney, Nova Scotia, no longer bear the surname of Edward Cornwallis, who once put bounties on Mi’kmaq men. But few figures have generated as much controversy these past few months as John A. Macdonald.
For years, there have been attempts to remove sculptures of our first prime minister, including recurring calls in Regina, one of the few cities in western Canada with such a likeness. Now there are petitions in Charlottetown to remove the bronze bench where tourists can pose with the architect of Confederation. The University of Windsor is reviewing the “appropriateness” of Macdonald Hall, a campus residence. The Sir John A. statue near my office, put up in 1894 but overlooked by most, has been defaced with pink paint. And Queen’s University, in a city where the lawyer once practised, has struck a committee to reconsider Sir John A. Macdonald Hall, the law building dedicated in 1960.
Calls to rename streets, petitions to rededicate buildings, and attempts to dismantle or destroy statues can disrupt static interpretations of complex historical narratives. They can also put small‑c conservatives on the defensive. Whether you argue for or against Macdonald Hall or any other place name that animates our national map, it’s hard to deny the visceral divisiveness of public commemoration. It’s what was on my mind ten years ago, when I wrote, “Perhaps more than ever, it is critically important to work toward a process of un-mapping.”
A lot of place names simply go unnoticed. I’ve lived in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood for years, and I still can’t remember the cross street just north of my house (to say nothing of the Scottish peninsula I think it salutes). But we have strong attachments — both positive and negative — to others. Some sort of formalized, nuanced un-mapping process, and not the simplicity of social media referendums, might help us navigate which attachments we choose to keep as a nation and which we choose to sever.
It’s not just attachments to dorms and streets that matter. Many also have attachments to the stories they think are behind those tributes, however real or dubious. Just take Lincoln.
Honouring the late president wasn’t exactly on the legislative agenda in 1867. The capital had long been in Omaha, the largely pro-Union city north of the Platte River. Yet many more people, including former slave owners and Confederate sympathizers, lived south of the Platte, and they wanted the seat of power nearby. It was a contentious fight, and finally a toponymic-minded senator amended the Removal Act: if the capital were to ever leave Omaha, it would have to be called after Abraham Lincoln. Obviously, Democrats would never go for it.
Lincoln was so named in spite of the sixteenth president — not in honour of him. That’s not the story Lincolnites like to tell themselves, though; many bristle when you point out his complicated views on race or the original backhanded nature of their demonym. But the meanings of names change. Yesterday’s slight can become today’s honour, just as yesterday’s honour can become today’s slight. To know one’s history is to grapple with that never-ending negotiation.