MONTREAL — Eleven Quebec sites whose names contain words with pejorative or racist connotations will be renamed, a provincial commission announced Friday.
In a news release, the commission announced it had “de-officialized” the place names, all of which contain the word “nigger” or the French word “negre.”
“Some of these place names, over time, testify to historical events,” the statement read. “However, even if the words ‘nigger’ and ‘negro’ are of ancient usage, they can violate the dignity of the members of the black community.”
The N-word, the commission said, “has a highly offensive connotation.”
Rachel Zellars, a McGill University PhD candidate who studies in the history of slavery and of black Canadians, started a petition in early August after hearing a media report that included the statement that no official complaints had been lodged against the names.
“It was my way of saying ‘let me show you some disagreement,'” she said of the petition, which garnered nearly 2,000 signatures.
Zellars said the next challenge is to ensure history isn’t erased in the renaming of the sites, many of which are historically important to the black community.
According to the commission’s website, the places to be renamed include a section of rapids in the Gatineau river named in memory of a black couple who drowned there in 1912, and a site in Saint-Armand called ‘Nigger Rock,’ where former black slaves are believed to have been buried between 1794 and 1833.
The commission’s statement said the replacement names should respect the history of the places and remember the presence of Quebec’s black community whenever possible.
It did not give a timeline for the renaming.
Zellars said she hopes the process will be done in consultation with members of the province’s black community and historians to ensure the new names reflect the sites’ importance to local black history.
More widely, she says she hopes the issue will encourage Quebec society to face its own troubled and often unacknowledged history with black slavery and the black community.
She said just the fact that place names containing “the greatest term of debasement used to describe black people in North America,” were accepted for so many years is evidence of a problem.
“We know just by mention of that name there’s a really problematic history there pertaining to this province’s relationship to black people, both at the community level and secondly at the official or provincial level as well,” she said.