Consultation with aboriginals is crucial to changing place names from colonial past
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Fittingly for an explorer, Captain George Vancouver had nerve in spades when he arrived on the shores of British Columbia's coast in 1792, albeit 9,000 years after the first prehistoric settlers.
Captain Vancouver promptly named the stretch of water between the coast and Vancouver Island the Strait of George for King George III, British monarch at the time. Latterly, it has become known as the Strait of Georgia. It was, needless to say, a time before the term 'duty to consult' was known.
Those three words are now acutely familiar to anyone doing business in British Columbia. They are at the core of aboriginal title and rights issues as the courts define what type of ownership first nations can claim in terms of land and resources.
What is clear is that governments have a duty to consult aboriginal groups who exercise rights - either through past habitation or through hunting, fishing or gathering - in places where commercial interests arise.
In the past two years, British Columbia's premier Gordon Campbell has taken up the concept of consultation and endorsed it, prompting a sea change within his government. Once perceived as a critic of aboriginal rights, Mr Campbell has become their biggest champion in recent years. And when it was suggested the Strait of Georgia be renamed the Salish Sea - to pay respect to the Coast Salish people - he was willing to consider it.
The change makes sense. Naming one of the most important bodies of water in British Columbia after people who were here long before the arrival of Europeans (and maintain a presence in the present) seems eminently more worthy than honouring a lunatic monarch who never set foot in the region. Many well-known geographical areas are named for the aboriginals who lived there. The Okanagan Valley and the Cowichan River are two examples. Most recently, the Queen Charlotte Islands underwent a name change to Haida Gwaii.
There have also been changes to names considered unseemly in present times. Twelve years ago, the government responded to pressure from Chinese-Canadians to ditch the name Chinaman Lake, which had been on British Columbia maps for decades. Ironically, research later showed that the term wasn't even supposed to be a slur against the Chinese - it was a mistranslation of the name of the aboriginal chief Chunamun.
Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, said renaming the Strait of Georgia to the Salish Sea was only a symbolic gesture. Of greater concern were issues such as deepening poverty in aboriginal communities.
The Monarchist League has also voiced opposition to the move.
But both the premier and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mike de Jong - who received the suggestion at a conference last month - appear willing to consider the move if there is strong public support.
That appears unlikely. A poll conducted last week showed Canadians were divided on the issue - 39 per cent supported the idea, while 37 per cent were opposed.