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Old Squaw Islands is located off the coast of Baffin Island, about 40 kilometres southeast of Iqaluit.Planet Labs/The Globe and Mail

A Nunavut women’s advocacy council is calling for the renaming of a group of islands, known as Old Squaw Islands, that degrades Indigenous women.

The Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council said the name for the islands, located about 40 kilometres southeast of Iqaluit, is an ethnic and sexual slur, historically used for Indigenous North American women.

“It devalues them,” Madeleine d’Argencourt, the executive director of Qulliit, said in an interview. “I think anything that’s derogatory, speaking for Nunavut, that’s an official marker in this territory, should be addressed immediately.”

The name for this group of islands dates to 1961, according to the Canadian Geographical Names database. The federal database shows there are 20 official geographical sites across Canada that contain this word.

Ms. d’Argencourt said she learned only a few weeks ago about the name of the islands in Nunavut.

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Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek.Handout

She plans to work closely with the Inuit Heritage Trust, which is responsible for recording traditional place names in Nunavut, in consultation with Inuit elders, to get the name changed.

“Somebody would have an idea of what the actual Inuit traditional name of that island would be, and I think that’s something we should revisit,” Ms. d’Argencourt said. “If not, then come up with something more meaningful and fitting for this jurisdiction.”

Connie Wyatt Anderson, chair of the Geographical Names Board of Canada, which manages geographical site name changes, said she believes the name persists because there is a lack of understanding among Canadians of what the word “squaw” means.

She said the council’s initiative could be a learning experience. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to bring awareness to how names are named, to names that are derogatory, and how [we] can, in the spirit of reconciliation, repair those names and learn from the community.”

Her board’s goal is to bring awareness to place naming in Canada, including its recent action to highlight places named after Indigenous women through a digital map in 2019.

“These are actions that we are taking to highlight the living, breathing aspect of Canada’s place names, and that obviously includes those that are derogatory,” she said.

Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek said the importance of language, and how it is used, needs to be considered with place names, especially when they refer to Indigenous people.

“Creating space for a name that is inherently sexist, discriminatory and racist just promotes the harmful rhetoric and ideologies about Indigenous people, and specifically Indigenous women,” Ms. Adamek said.

Ms. Adamek said the need to change these offensive names is more pressing in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

“We need to make those changes as a civil society,” she said. “It can’t just sit on the shoulders of Indigenous peoples, again.”

In November, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, denounced the derogatory word and ordered all place names on federal lands carrying the slur to be removed.

Ms. Adamek said there is a need for the same leadership to take place within all levels of government in Canada, particularly by Ottawa, which is responsible for Indigenous affairs.

“We can take the lead from Deb Haaland from a federal perspective in the U.S. … Let us all join her in that,” Ms. Adamek said.

For Ms. d’Argencourt, the need to get rid of these derogatory names is essential to respecting Indigenous women across Canada.

“That kind of mentality no longer stands and anything that is offensive to, especially Aboriginal, women should be addressed immediately and taken with seriousness.”

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