My fellow Haliburtonians, we are named after a racist by today’s standards with a questionable history. Should we do something about that?
It is not an easy question to answer. Haliburton is our brand and altering a community’s name would be a fraught process. Despite Haliburton’s troublesome writings coming to focus recently, it is not a well-known history and not necessarily doing active harm. We are also in a pandemic, so I cannot fault people for not wanting to have the difficult conversation right now.
Nonetheless, it is a conversation we should have eventually. If we keep Haliburton, it should be with reason, not because it is the easy thing to do. But in my mind, it is a name whose days should be numbered.
The problems with our namesake’s – Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s – writings are many. Though undoubtedly an important Canadian author, racism and sexism does permeate his work – whether in the justification of domestic violence in his satire or describing the Mi’kmaq nation as often drunk and violent in his nonfiction. None of this is to deny the impact and reach of his writings, but if you look, there is enough there to make him unsavoury to associate ourselves with.
Haliburton’s connection to our community is also weak. He never actually lived here. We share his name because he was the first chair of the Canadian Land and Emigration Company which brought settlers in. Though important, it is not as if he really built these communities, compared to those first settlers themselves.
We should ask ourselves whether we really want that name to be reflective of us. Although a name change is meaningless without action towards inclusivity and against discrimination – an issue that is absolutely part of our community – this is still worth considering. If we have this knowledge that we are named after a racist by our standards, but choose not to act, what does that say about us? What does it say if we decide we do not care whether we are named for someone who flies in the face of the values we want to ascribe to ourselves? Nothing good.
The historic figure was important. He should – and will – remain part of the history of this town. But that can be done in places such as museums and classrooms where things can be fully contextualized, versus names that celebrate an individual with a mixed legacy.
Now may not be the best time for the debate, but it could be coming soon. When the service delivery review at the County comes through, it will hopefully lead to a conversation about amalgamation. Should the day come where the County amalgamates, it would seem to me to be the best time to reflect on our name, rather than defaulting to something such as “The City of Haliburton.” If we are going to go through a massive rebranding exercise anyway, that would be the perfect time to choose a name that is both more inclusive of our shared values – and the rest of the highlands as a whole. At that point, we could critically examine it for the township too.
Another alternative could be in rededication. The Township of Russell – named after a slave-owner – launched a search this year to find a better Russell to be named after. There may not be as many historic Haliburtons out there, but it is a creative solution and a good compromise if it is possible. It can be hard to let go of the past and tradition.
In this difficult world, tradition can feel like a critical, stabilizing thing. But as the world changes, clinging too tightly can mean we get left behind in the march of progress. That happens with many things in Haliburton. Maybe we can start changing that with a conversation about the name.