Last Friday, the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia were officially renamed Haida Gwaii, the name preferred by the First Nations people who live there. I suppose I should have a twinge of uneasiness about the fact that part of the geography I learned so painfully in elementary school has disappeared into the recycle bin with Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but my main feeling is that the change was long overdue.
In fact, in the last couple of decades, I’ve hardly heard anyone refer to the Queen Charlotte Islands. The only exceptions I can recall are The Globe and Mail, which I often think of a newspaper written by seventy-year-olds for seventy-years-old (and as too Eastern to know better), and members of the Monarchist League, who blindly defend anything with the remotest connection to royalty. The people who live on the islands call them Haida Gwaii, and that is enough for most people, either because they’re polite or out a vague sense that the people who live there should have a right to determine the name.
I mean, it’s not as though one person in ten knows who Queen Charlotte was. I know, but, then I read history. Yet although in theory I have a good deal of sympathy for Queen Charlotte, who had to endure George III’s madness, in which he sometimes yearned for a woman other than her, in practice she doesn’t have much to do with British Columbia. Her sole association is that a ship on George Dixon’s voyage of discovery in 1786 was named for her. She probably would have hard-pressed to locate the islands without help.
At any rate, the 18th century explorers of the Pacific, Cook and Vancouver included, may have been fine surveyors, but I don’t see why we should regard their poverty of imagination as unchangeable. When they came to naming landmarks, their resources were painfully limited: First, their officers, then their ships, then all the members of the English royal family they could remember, then start all over again. If you read about their voyages of discovery, you soon sense an air of desperation about their names. Sometimes, I’m surprised that we don’t have coast lines full of No Name Bays, Capes #42, and Mounts Whatyoumacallit.
By contrast to the arbitrary names of the European explorers, Haida Gwaii is deeply meaningful to those who live there. Translated as something like “Islands of the People,” the new name acknowledges the people who have lived there for a minimum of ten thousand years, developed and still practice some of the most genuinely moving art that I have seen, and who are now moving rapidly towards self-determination. All this seem far more worth acknowledging in a name than a half-forgotten royal consort. Besides, if anyone wants to remember Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the islands still include a Queen Charlotte City.
But when you think of it, the name change isn’t really radical at all. It’s just a recognition of how things are – and have been for some time.