Hello, let’s talk about a park

lheidli2015.ca: our history

Why giving civic space its indigenous name is everything and nothing

I’m not usually one to quote books because I rarely remember them, but I’m going to do it here. It’s from Wayne Johnston’s tale of Newfoundland, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams:

“Every morning, before work, using the oilcloth as my model, I drew the map of Newfoundland. My goal was to be able to draw it as well from memory as I could draw the map England. For the longest while, after I began drawing Newfoundland, it was the map of England I saw when I closed my eyes at night, as though my mind were sending forth this primary shape by way of protest — which it needn’t have bothered doing, since England had been so early imprinted on my brain that no amount of drawing other maps could supplant it.”

The instant I read that passage I highlighted it, wrote it down, made sure I would be able to access it because it resonated so deeply with me.

In Unrequited Dreams, British teachers make it very clear to their pupils in Newfoundland that England is the heart of civilization, of history, and that nothing to come from the colonies will ever be as good. To reinforce that, they elevate English writers, leaders and even geography as far more important than anything of local concern.

Unlike the novel’s protagonist, I was not made to draw a map of England every morning while attending school. But the imprint of England, and of other, more exciting and important places, imprinted itself on my mind at a very early age.

This sense of European superiority is no longer as blatant in Canadian society, but Canadian inferiority certainly is. Whether we’re discussing comedy, music, film, food or virtually anything else, a nagging question in the Canadian mind is “are we good enough?”

I believe that question, that doubt, comes from the importance we place on the cultures and histories of other places over our own. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with knowing about the rest of the world- in fact, it’s essential. But often that knowledge comes at the expense of knowing anything of ourselves.

Who we are….

The above map is not atypical of the way Canadians are taught to think about their country. Some capitals, a few out-of-the-way cities, and vast tracts of nothingness in-between. A barren land.

Then there’s the map that I have hanging on the wall in my dining room:

It represents British Columbia by the traditional territories of its First People. These are unique cultural and political entities, shaped by centuries of history, with their own languages, social structures, and traditions.

I purchased this map as a reminder that there’s nothing inherent about Canada being a dull monoculture from coast-to-coast: this way of thinking is a mythology enforced by a lack of knowledge of both the past and the present.

Even look at the name of this province: “British Columbia.” Not wanting to be bothered to come up with any unique identifiers, the powers-that-be opted to give this tract of land, bigger than France and Germany combined, “Columbia” — but you know, the British version.

Then there’s the city I was born, raised, and continue to live in: Prince George. Did a Prince George ever live here? Set foot here? Even be aware of the place? On the last, maybe, on the other two, definitely not. And yet the city’s founders, apparently unable to think of themselves in terms of nothing else than British subjects, opted to use the creation of a new city as an opportunity to honour some low-tier foreign royal rather than look for anything of local significance to identify the place.

Which is a shame, because there was a perfectly good name kicking around already: “Lheidli T’enneh”. Pronounced “KLATE-lee TEN-eh”, it is taken from the Dakelh words for “people” — T’enneh — and “confluence” — Lheidli. Combined, the words mean “people of the confluence” which makes perfect sense since they were settled at the confluence of two rivers, the Nechako and the Lhtakoh (Fraser).

Had the early Europeans thought about it, they may have realized it would make sense to keep using the name already in place. After all they, too, were people of the confluence, having arrived here to take advantage of the commercial aspects the two rivers afforded. In the very early days of contact, trade was done by canoe. Later, paddlewheels were a major transportation source of both people and goods. And even today when trade is no longer dependent on rivers Prince George continues to be place of confluences, serving as the meeting point of Highway 97 headed north-south and Highway 16 going east-west, not to mention an international airport and multiple railways. Having worked for centuries before, “people of the confluence” certainly would have worked for the century since.

But instead the city founders decided to burn the village of Lheidli and rename the land, erasing their presence both physically and psychologically.

“Even the churches of the Indians will be burned…”

Yes, the village was burned. And the people responsible were pretty open about it, too. On September 6, 1913, the Fort George Herald proclaimed:

“The old Indian village, a few hundred yards up the Fraser river from this town, will soon be a mass of smoldering ruins. Already the houses at the north end of the village have been burned to the ground to give way to the utilization of the land upon which they have stood for years gone by, for the purposes of the dominant race which has purchased their reserve for the future site of a great city...”
“With the departure of the last of the tribe from their old haunts here, the torch of the white men will be thrust into the remaining houses and the village will disappear quietly in a cloud of smoke and sparks. Even the churches of the Indians will be burned, the sacred ornaments and the bell dedicated to their missionary priests being removed to the beautiful church on reserve No. 2.”

The article itself makes reference to a brand-new reservation given to “the Indians” and that their old village site at the Fraser and Nechako had been “purchased”. The reality of both these things is far less rosy. I’ve spoken to a number of people who’ve researched this purchase using both written records and oral histories and been told the “purchase” of the land was iffy at best. As for the new reserve, well, the Lheidli arrived to find incomplete houses and little help. As band member and former councillour Rena Zatorksi says in the audio below, it is still considered by many to be a forced relocation.

listen to Lheidli band member and former councillour Rena Zatorksi and land use planner and author of “”Reclaiming Lheidli: Towards Indigenous Planning in Prince George” tell the story of Lheidli

Lheidli T’enneh logo by Jennifer Anais Pighin

And that wasn’t the end of it. I won’t go into a full century of injustices, but a sampling might include the young Lheidli men who went to fight for Canada in World War II but upon arrival home were not eligible for the aid other veterans received, the fact Lheidli members and other First Nations could not vote in provincial elections until 1949 or federal elections until 1960, or the history of the residential schools, now coming to light through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (by the way, the TRC Executive Summary provides an excellent overview of the injustices afforded to Canada’s First Nations, and you can get a version for your Kindle, Kobo or smartphone here).

But that’s not the history I grew up with. To the extent we learned anything about Prince George’s history, it’s that it was discovered by explorers and fur traders, grew because of the lumber industry, and today is a growing northern capital. The Lheidli may have been mentioned here or there, but never in great detail.

In fact, nothing much about Prince George’s history was relayed to me in school. I was taught plenty about feudal society in the Middle Ages, about John A Macdonald and the founding of Canada, about Shakespeare and the Outsiders and the Treaty of Versailles, but anything of local concern: virtually nil. And like Wayne Johnston’s protagonist having the map of England imprinted on his mind, I was imprinted with the culture and history of somewhere else. I believed, as so many people from small towns and cities are led to believe, that life happens elsewhere, that to succeed would, by definition, mean going elsewhere to where important things happen. And again, this wasn’t done maliciously by teachers or family or an outside agenda, it was more of a self-evident truth: if important things happened here, surely we would hear about it, since we don’t… they must not.

Maybe that would have been different if I ever heard the term “Lheidli” growing up. At the very least, asking what the word meant would give me a baseline knowledge, the way an entire generation knows Canada means “the village… the people!”

And from there, maybe a conversation about what happened to the first people of the confluence, and a more nuanced understanding of the history of this place, not just of the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous people, but of the development of the railway, of the mayors and councillours and businesspeople making these decisions, in short: a better knowledge of who we are and where we come from, good and bad.

Instead, this is the typical conversation about the city’s origins:

“Why is it called Prince George?”
“Um, I think it was after King George? Or maybe an actual Prince George?”
“Did they ever come here?”

Our name, disconnected from anything having to do with our history, is a missed opportunity to explore our origins, to spark knowledge and curiousity and even pride of place. Instead, it’s just a reminder that there are important people who get places named after them, and those people don’t come here.

Fort George Park in the summer

So let’s talk about city councillour Murry Krause’s proposal to replace the name of “Fort George Park” with “Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park”.

As he says in this interview (also embedded below), the city’s main civic park is actually located on the site of the Lheidli village that was burned to the ground in 1913, and is still the site of the Lheidli burial grounds.

While a portion of those grounds have been marked off and protected, other human remains are simply buried in the park itself. Over the years, development in the park has unearthed bones of Lheidli ancestors some of whom died naturally, others who died of measles and small pox epidemics after first contact. The word “memorial,” suggested by the Lheidli themselves, is a way of recognizing that past. “They were there long before Europeans came,” Krause says. “It really is a way of acknowledging that.” Chief Dominick Frederick of the Lheidli stresses the renaming isn’t about blaming or dredging up past hurts, but acknowledging what came before.

The reaction to this proposal has been mixed. While many are celebrating it, many others are upset. They feel it erases their past, their memories of the park growing up, of the city’s origins as a fort.

I understand people’s attachment to the past. I, too, have fond memories of playing on the fire engine, using the swings, and throwing frisbees. But I don’t feel returning this historic name undoes that. For every person worried a name change would erase the history of Fort George, I wonder how much they know of the history that was erased in order to make this park — of the changed names, the forgotten bones, the attempted elimination of a people and culture through a combination of relegation and assimilation.

In a Facebook post that’s been shared over 150 times, Mike Gouchie writes

“I seldom have a public opinion or comment, but in the case of renaming Fort George Park, it hits close to home… (pun totally intended!)
I have several generations of family members buried in “Ft. George Park”, including my Great Grandmother Lizette Seymour “Blind Granny”, whom lived with my family and I for most of my childhood and teenage years!
Blind Granny lived to the age of 103 years (possibly older?), but unknown due to the fact age documents weren’t created for First Nations until government took over. Children weren’t registered until they were baptized and at times they could’ve already been up to 10 years old. Blind Granny would’ve been 120 (registered age) on this June 16th, 2015. She was baptized in 1895 and was about 5 years old at the time. (Which would make her that much older)
Was June 16th her true birthdate? Probably not, just the day she was baptized…
She told truths about days gone by, cried about sickness that outsiders brought to the Village. Blind Granny recalled her parents and people being dead all around her when she was a little girl. This was “The Bad Flu” brought in by Settlers… “Death, nothing but death”, she said, while weeping!
She was born in her Village (known today as Fort George Park).
It was her Village, her home! It had no name, it was not a reserve… It was her people’s rightful territory!
Fort George Park was named long after the territory was taken over by government, huts burned out, First Nations People being forced to move onto the reserves outside of Prince George (now known as Lheidli T’enneh), fur traders coming and going and Government ultimately taking over the “Lheidli People’s” territory.
My father is buried in “Fort George Park” and “I” will be buried in “Fort George Park”!
My opinion was asked about what I though about renaming Fort George Park to The Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park, so here it is:
“I personally think it is a well overdue, great idea! It would warm my heart to see “at least” the Grave Yard my family and community members are buried in, (and where I will ultimately call my final resting place), have some noticeable memorial signage over it recognizing it’s original people”.
For myself, although it’s been Fort George Park all of my life…. Fort George is only a reminder of what it now is, nothing of what it once was.
To me “personally” Fort George is just a glorified name that has no meaning to myself, my family, or my ancestors.
It is truly only a reminder of losing our rightful territory and all the pain and suffering that went along with it.
So, Prince George is celebrating 100 years….
My Blind Granny would’ve been approximately 125 years old. She recalled the days prior to, during, and after “Fort George”.
Blind Granny was alive into my early 20's and is still a major inspiration to me of overcoming, adapting, accepting, and conquering obstacles put in ones path!!
For those of you with the opinions of “get over it” and “move on”…
“WE HAVE”, more than you will ever truly understand!
Open your minds, open your hearts and open a book!
“Educate yourselves or forever let ignorance rule your world”.
Mussi Cho,
Mike Gouchie

In a passage from the Truth and Reconciliation report, the words of Elder Stephen Augustine and the importance of silence are relayed: “Reconciliation cannot occur without listening, contemplation, meditation, and deeper internal deliberation.”

So with that I would simply encourage people, upset about hearing of this name change, to take a moment to listen to what it means to the Lheidli themselves, their history and present. And to contemplate what it might mean for the rest of us who love this place to define ourselves not by foreign royals but by where we are and who we are, and what we can be. And finally to reflect on how, in the scheme of things, the name of a park might not be that important- and yet have all the importance in the world.

PS I don’t normally do this, but I think this history is important to share. So if you enjoyed or learned from this, please hit the “recommend” button below, or share it on Facebook + Twitter.

Further reading: Lheidli T’enneh Cemetery, Prince George: A Documented History

UPDATE: it happened.