Symbols matter: Carleton’s colonial street address (23 September 2014)

When speaking at Carleton yesterday, former Prime Minister Kim Campbell emphatically said, “Symbols are important.” She broached this with regards to a private member’s bill in the House of Commons considered this week on making the national anthem more gender neutral. I thoroughly agree and am now inspired to do my part to change a negative symbol associated with Carleton, namely and quixotically, our street address.

Carleton could choose any street on campus to use for its street address. University Drive would be an excellent choice, especially since it is visible to anybody driving from the airport to downtown Ottawa. While nerdy, Library Road would be another good choice. Or if we want to be spectator-sport-crazy, Raven Road would be an interesting choice that is short, sweet, and alliterative. But the choice of Colonel By Drive is a symbolic nightmare. Colonel John By was a military man who helped build the Rideau Canal that was supposed to help keep British supplies moving between Kingston and Montreal in the event that the American military invaded portions of the St. Lawrence River between the Thousand Islands and Cornwall.

Carleton is on unceded Algonquin territory. Carleton is at least trying to make a symbolic effort to respect the Algonquin peoples who share these lands with us. It is, however, utterly disrespectful using a street address named after someone who helped colonize these lands. Furthermore, the military rank ‘colonel’ has the same etymological root as the term ‘colonial’. The spelling is not a coincidence (see here). It would also not be advisable for Carleton to use the street address of Bronson Avenue. Erskine Henry Bronson was a politician and businessman who built the hydro-electric power plants at Chaudíere Falls, thereby desecrating an important Anishinaabe place, Asinabka. Given that we could pick any street address on campus, we might as well go for one that does not represent repressive colonial heritage. Symbols matter.

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2 comments
  1. James Cheetham said:

    Just like Colonel By, Sir Guy Carleton, our university’s namesake, was also a British colonial administrator. Indeed, he was responsible for settling many loyalists along the St. Lawrence river and in the Ottawa valey. In 1782 as the American War of Independence was finally closing, he was asked to come out of retirement and take charge of all of the forces in British North America in order to help British Loyalists and troops re-locate to Canada and in the case of the troops return to England. In particular he arranged for and oversaw the evacuation of New York City which had been a loyalist strong hold through the war.

    So, Sir Guy Carleton did much more than Colonel By, by way of colonizing Upper Canada. Indeed, we may have to change the name of the university, in addition to the address.

  2. My close colleague, the well-read Professor Cheetham, may be correct about changing the university’s name. But that will be an expensive change, possibly including to our reputation (which may or may not be a bad thing). By contrast, changing our university’s street address is almost costless. Simply wait for the old letterhead to be used up, then print slightly modified versions. Maybe I will take the first step by altering the street address on my e-mail signature and see whether anybody notices.

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