June 23, 2000
Darn it. You turn your back for a few minutes
and someone goes and changes things on you.
My wife and I were driving up to the cottage
for the first time this season and missed our turn off the main
road. While we were away they changed the name of our street.
I had to call the township about something
else. When we were getting a phone installed we found out everyone's
street number was wrong, and now thanks to us all our neighbours
now have to send out change of address cards. I don't think we'll
be going to the street party this year.
While I had the municipality on the line I
asked why the name change.
I'm a bit of an amateur historian, so I knew
a little about the area around the cottage. In the 1820s the
surrounding hills were logged to provide the British Navy with
masts for their sailing ships. Every once in a while one of the
logs that got away more than 150 years ago rises from the bottom
and floats to the surface of the lake. It may never see the British
Empire, but one now adorns my shore as a handy bench to catch
the morning sun.
They used the Squaw River to get these hundred-foot
logs down to the lake. As close as I can tell, the Squaw River
has had that name for more than a century and a half. The newly
renamed road that runs along side it was the Squaw River Road.
I can see you're already way ahead of me.
The township tells me that no one in the area
had a problem with the name. It had existed for years without
comment from any of the local Native groups.
But last winter someone from Ottawa was driving
by on the highway. They must have slowed down on their way to
or from a sensitivity training course just long enough to be
offended and jotted down the name of the river and street. The
person wasn't of aboriginal extraction - just someone wanting
to assert some backwoods political correctness.
"Squaw" is an Algonquin word that
simply means "woman". In that language - and I must
confess my own Algonquin is a little rusty - it has no other
or offensive meaning. It was picked up as slang by early settlers
to refer to any native woman. Linguists say the belief that it
also could refer to a certain part of the female anatomy is just
But we'd rather change an historic name than
take the time to understand the history. By the way, I saw that
Oklahoma also just voted to change everything named "Squaw".
It's like all the fuss a few years back when
an American public official used the word "niggardly".
He lost his job over it due to the clamouring of various groups
who assumed this word for cheapness was a slur aimed at the black
community. A quick look in the dictionary shows that "niggardly"
comes from an Old Norse word hnøgger, which has
nothing to do with black people. For the record, the offensive
word comes from the Latin niger, meaning black.
But don't let facts - or a couple hundred
years of history - get in the way of righteous indignation.
Or am I just being niggardly?