Thursday, April 01, 2010

Trutch Hall - Renaming Buildings and Places

This week some students at UVic said they wanted to have the Trutch Hall remamed because it is named for Joseph Trutch. As someone that has spent many years working for First Nations on land issues, I am very aware of his place in the history of BC as one of the men most responsible for the oppression of the aboriginal people of BC. I can see the case for removing his name and using a different one. I also see that the problem comes from a very western North American thing, naming almost everything for people.

In the past names for places and things came about organically. Abbotsford in the UK comes from it being the ford controlled by the abbot. Green Lake is named that way because it is green. Names were descriptors of where you were, the name meant something that related to the geography.

Here in the west of North America we have created names for places that have no organic connection to the place where we are. We are naming locations for people. The names of places like Oliver, Bowser and McBride in BC are all named for BC premiers. There is nothing about their names that lets you know anything about them. Bowser would have been better named Oyster Beach and Oliver would have been better known as Fruit Garden or Orchard. The name tells us nothing of the place. You give no identity to the community.

When one uses the name of a person to give a location an identity, you run the risk of two things: people decide the person was actually a bastard or people simply forget who the person was. Trutch hall is clearly the case of people come to realize he was not a nice man and huge amounts of damage to BC through his capricious actions. Lansdowne residence also has Hodges, Ravenhill, Helmcken, Carroll and Sanderson halls. I know who two of these people were but the rest I have no idea. The name of the complex comes from a former Governor General of Canada.

Naming is also often the chance for people in power to honour their political buddies. Over in Vancouver there is a bridge named the Arthur Laing bridge. The bridge was named for him because the Liberals were in power in Ottawa and the federal government built the bridge. During this era the Liberals were very unpopular in BC and Arthur Laing was one of the few politicians they had in the 1950s and 60s.

Using names of people that are barely known during the height of their career means we create names that are meaningless for us. When places do not have names that mean anything we disconnect ourselves from the place we live in. Examples of good bridge names in the lower Mainland are the Oak Street Bridge, the Knight Street Bridge, and the Cambie Street Bridge. We had two river crossings that had good names that were renamed, the Deas Island tunnel became the George Massey tunnel and the Second Narrows Bridge become the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing.

At a university there are obvious names that can be used for buildings - the Library, the Administration building, the Recreation building and others. There are buildings at UVic that make sense, University Centre, Human and Social Development building, and the Medical Sciences building as examples. Many of the residence buildings at UVic do not have names at all but are known by a number, not ideal but at least not a random choice of some name of a person.

There is a role for something like a building to be named for a person from time to time, but only when the person is crucial to the place. As an example, Howard Petch saved UVic in the mid 1970s and by the time he retired in 1990 he made UVic a good school. I would argue no one person is more responsible for UVic as we know than he is. A person like this comes along less than once a generation. Naming a building for someone should not be done because they gave a lot of money or they did many years of loyal service to the institution. Both those choices are all about vanity and not real honour.

I hope the students succeed in getting the name changed but only all of the names of people are removed from buildings. The time has come to set a better standard for how things are named, UVic is a good place to start.

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