The Quebec government admits it made a mistake and is retreating from its plan to give new names to 101 islands in the Caniapiscau reservoir.
Quebec’s Toponymy Commission, which cooked up the idea, says it will reexamine the plan after learning that the former mountains already have Cree names.
“We were convinced that these mountains don’t have names,” said Christian Bonnelly, a geographer at the commission, who added that he was “surprised” to learn about the Cree names.
“If the Crees have some names in their inventories, the commission will reconsider the file in light of this new information. It could lead to certain changes. We could replace some of the names.”
The retreat is a setback for the commission’s plan to commemorate the French Language Charter, better known as Bill 101, by naming 101 islands after works by 102 Quebec authors. The new names were given to the islands at two sessions of the commission during the summer.
“They didn’t ask us,” said Chief Charles Bobbish of Chisasibi. “They unilaterally decided. The Cree people were hurt when they put in the (hydro-electric) projects. I don’t think they should hurt them more by renaming the islands.”
Bonnelly said the commission believed the islands didn’t have names because none were found in a survey of Cree place-names done for the commission in the late 1970s, during construction of the hydro-projects.
But linguist Marguerite MacKenzie, who did the survey, said her study was limited by time and resources, and shouldn’t have been considered complete.
“There is no way that was an exhaustive study. There was never any idea that the list of names I did was exhaustive,” she said.
MacKenzie, a professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld., said she used a large-scale map and surveyed only the five Cree communities on the James Bay coast. No inventories were done in the four inland Cree communities where trappers have closer links to the Caniapiscau area.
“I think it’s an incredible insult to the Crees, a bold-faced insult,” she said. “I’m amazed they’re still doing that in this day and age. This seems to be an about-face, a return to an earlier colonial situation. They’re trying to create instant history.”
Bonnelly insisted that the Toponymy Commission’s philosophy has evolved since the days when it would go in and arbitrarily dream up new names for places in native areas. In the 1970s, the commission launched a sweeping effort to return to the use of native names, he said, and Quebec wound up with close to 10,000 Native place-names on its official map.
But Bonnelly confirmed that the commission never contacted the Crees to double-check on whether the Caniapiscau islands already had names. He said no survey has been conducted of Cree place-names since the 1970s.
Alan Penn, an advisor to the Grand Council of the Crees, said the very choice of the Caniapiscau reservoir for the commemoration was dubious in the first place. “It’s a biological wasteland,” he said. “It was the most environmentally harmful part of the way the reservoirs were built. It looks fine on a map, but for the people who knew the area it’s an area that has been lost. I suspect many of the authors wouldn’t want their names associated with this place if they actually visited it.”