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Gabriel George, back left, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, welcomes paddlers in a traditional canoe before a ceremony officially announcing the new park name of temtemixwten/Belcarra Regional Park, in Belcarra, B.C., on Oct. 8, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

The new Indigenous adviser to the Geographical Names Board of Canada hopes to revitalize Indigenous place names through his position.

National Resources Canada announced last week the appointment of Rob Houle to the GNBC. Mr. Houle, from the Swan River First Nation, will serve a two-year term as the First Nations adviser to all of its 29 members and is the second Indigenous person to hold the role in the 125-year history of the board.

The board has the authority to name geographical features such as lakes, rivers and mountains, but they do not propose new names or names changes, except under exceptional circumstances. These proposals must come from the public or external organizations.

Despite the previous lack of formal recognition of Indigenous voices on the board, Mr. Houle said Indigenous peoples have always been present in the naming of Canadian geography. He said the history of colonialism has made Canadians forget the connection Indigenous communities and languages have to original place names.

Mr. Houle hopes his role can help reconnect Canada with its history to these names, and reconnect these names to the rightful ownership of the communities they come from. During his term, he plans to raise awareness of the board.

“I’m happy to come step into this role, to help reconnect with some of that history and also help even our own Indigenous communities understand how complex our relationships are, how important naming is, and how we can reconnect with some of these places we’ve lost touch with over the years,” Mr. Houle said.

“There are old names and places where you wouldn’t expect to find them,” he said, “but that tells me that there’s an older history there that probably needs some fleshing out in order to understand who else was there and what the relationships were like.”

Mr. Houle is a law student at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. Prior to his appointment, Mr. Houle was part of an Indigenous naming committee, iyiniw iskwewak wihtwawinwas (meaning “the committee of Indigenous matriarchs”), which renamed electoral districts and wards in Edmonton. Mr. Houle credits the committee for raising the profile of Indigenous naming in the city.

Connie Wyatt Anderson, the chair of the GNBC, said the inclusion of Indigenous advisers has been an exciting addition for the board and sees this as an active step towards reconciliation.

“Really, it’s Canada’s board,” Ms. Wyatt Anderson said. “The fact that Inuit, Métis and First Nations people are sitting at it is an imperative.”

Mr. Houle replaces the inaugural Indigenous adviser, former Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River, Ava Hill. She was the first Indigenous person to formally serve on the board for a one-year term from March, 2021 to March, 2022.

“I thought it was important and it could help with educating people across the country about our history, and our culture,” Ms. Hill said in reference to the importance of naming places.

Ms. Hill said renaming places to remove derogatory or racist names that should not be used is important for the board at this time. Ms. Wyatt Anderson said that calls for name changes are being assessed by a specific subcommittee.

Currently, there are two Indigenous advisory positions still available for Inuit and Métis representatives on the board, and Ms. Wyatt Anderson said that the board is actively looking to fill them.

Ms. Hill, believes a lack of outreach by the board has resulted in missing voices and has encouraged the board to reach out to local communities, including cultural centres and lands organizations, to recruit Indigenous members.

Ms. Wyatt Anderson said the role of the board is to tell the story of Canada through place and recognizes the need for Indigenous voices to fill in gaps in that story.

“Maybe the story has been too much of a Western lens, we’re in an opportunity to fill it in now.”

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