Saint-Armand, home of the racist place name. (Photo: Gilles Douaire/Flickr)

Earlier this month, Rachel Zellars, a Ph.D student at McGill University, came across a news article about the Commission de toponymie, the government agency that oversees place names in Québec.

This bureaucratic body sounds likely to be dull. But it had waded into an explosive issue.

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the commission was considering changing the names of 11 sites that still contained racial slurs—the word “n***er” or its French equivalent, “nègre”. But, the commission’s spokesman said, it wasn’t clear that those names would be changed: there had been “little public pressure to rename the sites,” he said. In fact, one of them had even been given an official racist name as late as 1983–before that designation, the name was just an informal one used by locals. 

Zellars read what officials were saying about these sites—that no one had ever complained about them, that some local people believed the names were a record of the past—and thought: Let me give you some public outcry.

In a hour, she put together a petition calling for “an immediate removal” of the words from “all of the names and places governed by the Commission.”

Within a day, hundreds of people had signed on.

Zellars has lived in Québec for a decade and studies race and the history of racism and slavery in Canada, but she grew up in the United States. And, she says, the assumptions people make about anti-black racism in Québec and in the U.S. are different.

“One of the things that’s part of Quebec’s history is to insist that it’s different than the U.S. That it’s much more tolerant and welcoming to black people, and doesn’t have any history of slavery,” she says. “The petition was a way of saying: No, you’re doing this revisionist history again.”

She wanted to make clear that, no matter what the history of a place, using these words to describe them was still an act of racism—that, she says, “The word ‘nigger’ is unequivocally the most offensive word used in North America to describe black people since we got here.”

The United States has its own store of offensive place names. In 2011, for instance, former Texas governor Rick Perry has to answer for the terrible name of his hunting camp. As Slate reported at the time, back in 1962, the federal government took some small steps to fix such names, by subbing in the word “Negro” (a more accepted word 50 years ago) in 174 places. But that gesture was only somewhat helpful: calling a place Dead Negro Draw (it’s in Texas) is only a marginal improvement, and U.S. place names are littered with other racial slurs and long-outdated words, like “squaw.”

Canada’s history is different from America’s, of course. There was nothing like the widespread plantation economy of the American south, and in Québec, in particular, the public discussion about racism can also get tangled in the province’s Anglo-French identity politics. “One of things that that you find in the French press when issues of anti-black racism rears its head is the argument that the only real racism that exists here was brought by Anglophones or Americans,” says Zellars.

One aspect of this legacy, she’s found, is that few people she meets know about the black history of Québec or Canada. France, as much as England or America, though, was involved in slave trade for centuries. And there were slaves in Canada—thousands of them.

In the two-and-a-half weeks since Zellars first posted her petition, close to 2,000 people have signed it. The result has far exceeded her expectation that a few hundred friends and friends of friends might jump on board. The commission won’t consider actually changing these names until the fall, but Zellars plans to keep pushing them to address the problem immediately.

It might seem like an obvious decision, to change these names. But in some of the communities where these sites are located, the names aren’t seen as a problem. “It’s important to keep in mind that all those places are officials names, so the Commission has to evaluate what would be the impacts if we proceed with the changes,” says Julie Létourneau, a spokesperson for the Commission de toponymie. “Not only must the location and the nature of places be expressed as rigorously as possible, but the measures required to preserve and showcase our place name heritage, which is part of our national identity, must also be taken into account.”*

In other words, the names might stay exactly what they are right now. At one site in Saint-Armand, for instance, one local man, Hank Avery, had to fight for years for a slave cemetery, one of only a handful in the country, to be recognized as a historic site. Locally, the site’s called Nigger Rock, and that’s what it’s listed as at the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network, for instance.

Avery was able to get some official recognition for the site. But, though he also argued for a name change—to Slave Rock—so far that hasn’t happened. The historic plaque in the town recognizing the site’s history features the old name, including the offensive word. 

*This quote was added after the original publication of the story.