What’s in a Name?

Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue recognized Chief Robert Joseph of Vancouver Island’s Gwawaenuk First Nation this week with our most prestigious award, the Jack P. Blaney Award for Dialogue (http://www.sfu.ca/dialogue/programs/blaney-award.html)

It’s presented every other year to an individual who has demonstrated, internationally, excellence in the use of dialogue to further the understanding of complex and profound public issues. Chief Joseph is a residential school survivor, who in his own words left the school “broken,” but he gradually emerged from the personal damage to grow into a man of great dignity and courage.

He has done what so many of us struggle with: putting aside anger and working for reconciliation. The award to Chief Joseph recognizes his tireless work to renew relationships among Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, built on a foundation of openness, dignity, understanding and hope.

Listening to Chief Joseph at the award ceremony, I was reminded of one signature outcome that characterizes successful reconciliation: achieving the capacity to fully express who you are without fear of retribution or consequences.

For example, it’s not always been advisable for Jews to be public about our Judaism. My father changed his name from “Weinstein” to “Winston” because when he was a young man in the 1940’s, it was difficult with a Jewish last name to get a job in his chosen field of engineering.

Jews were particularly traumatized after the Holocaust, and the names parents gave their children were designed to disguise our identity, either deliberately or unconsciously. I was named Mark Leslie Winston, and my brother Scott Elliott; most Jewish friends of my age have similarly anglicized names: Richard, Paul, Edward, Frank, John, Linda, Susan, Harriett and Lynn.

But anti-Semitism has receded in North America over the last many decades, allowing a proud blossoming of identity through names. My daughter is Devora Sheina, and the children of our friends have names like Sarah, Shira, Rachel, Jacob, Lavi, Aviva, Jordana, Talya, and Nirit, carrying those names openly and with confidence.

This is one of the healthy outcomes of reconciliation: the capacity to move from the consequences of prejudice and fear to confidence and comfort in expressing every aspect of identity.

We see this happening in many indigenous communities today. It was a stellar moment of reconciliation when British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed to their ancestral name Haida Gwaii, a terminological moment reflecting the brighter future emerging from the recovery of aboriginal identity.

Chief Joseph is fond of a word in his native Gwawaenuk language, ‘namwayut, which means “we are all one.” But ‘namwayut doesn’t mean being the same. One of the key steps in reconciling past injustice is to say that we can be many, each valued for their unique identity.

Canada’s indigenous peoples experienced a grave injustice, denial of their culture and identity, but that is changing. We’ll all be richer as the ancestral names of native Canadians, and the ancient names of the places they inhabited, return.

I look forward to Chief Joseph’s ancestral name, Kwun Kwun Wha Lee Gei Gee (Big Thunderbird) rolling easily on all our tongues.