The joke about most small towns is that when asked for directions, long-time residents will describe the route to the destination using landmarks that aren’t there anymore (turn right where the old farmer’s market used to be). As landscapes develop and change, how should we remember the people and buildings that were once on those sites?
That issue came up at the Island Savings Centre Commission meeting this week as they talked about a request from a local artist to craft a plaque on a granite setting to honour a homesteading family whose farm used to be where the community centre now sits. Commissioners pointed out that if you acknowledge the farmers, then what about the First Nations people who were there prior to them?
In many cities, owners of historically significant buildings can apply for plaques that tell the story. In St. Albert, Alberta, residents can buy – for $500 or more – a plaque commemorating a person. The locations are chosen by the city.
What you choose to commemorate is a sensitive topic. Many cities are criss-crossed with streets bearing names of otherwise accomplished people who had attitudes many deem offensive today. But changing them can be difficult. In January, Port Alberni city council defeated the motion that Neill Street and Indian Road be renamed. Neill was named for named A.W. Neill, an Indian agent, mayor, member of parliament and strong supporter of Japanese internment.
Instead of burying history or changing the more egregious names or choosing one person over another, what might make sense, at least in the Cowichan Valley, is to erect educational panels (similar to some fabulous ones at the Cowichan Bay walking trail completed by CERCA). That would certainly enhance our reputation as a tourist destination.
But do we need another plaque to honour one family – at the CVRD’s expense, as requested by the artist? It seems there are better ways to finance historic awareness. Once the group determines how to use the wood from the recently removed maple tree (artist proposals are due this week), that will likely be all the commemoration needed.