Roberts Creek beach

Georgia Straight. Salish Sea. What’s In A Name?

Eighteen years ago, on a stormy November night at our place in Roberts Creek, a debate was raging. Eve and I were not settled on a name for the child that would be born in a couple of weeks at St. Mary’s Hospital in Sechelt.

The windows were rattling, rain was falling sideways, the power was cutting out, and we were arguing.

Then, at about 6 pm, the phone rang. It was my dear cousin Kevin, who was on his sailboat in this dirty weather calling on his primitive cellphone. “Hey Hugh,” he said, “don’t have a lot of time. If it’s a girl, how about ‘Georgia?’ You know, Georgia Straight.”

Kev and I grew up on this body of water. Sailed, swam, fished, and loved it. Eve needed no convincing, and today my amazing daughter, Georgia, makes me proud that I am her dad and bears her name utterly and actually. She is, like me, a water baby and swims with the joy of a soul born of the Coast.

Which brings me to the Salish Sea.

Some folks call the body of water that I live on after the broad grouping of Aboriginal people that have lived here for millennia. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the Salish people:

“The Coast Salish are a big loose grouping of many tribes with numerous distinct cultures and languages. Territory claimed by Coast Salish peoples span from the northern limit of the Gulf of Georgia on the inside of Vancouver Island and covers most of southern Vancouver Island, all of the Lower Mainland and most of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula (except for territories of now-extinct Chemakum people). Their traditional territories coincide with modern major metropolitan areas, namely VictoriaVancouver, and Seattle. The Tillamook or Nehalem around Tillamook, Oregon are the southernmost of the Coast Salish peoples.

The Coast Salish cultures differ considerably from those of their northern neighbours. It is one of the few indigenous cultures along the coast with a patrilineal rather than matrilineal kinship system, with inheritance and descent passed through the male line. According to a 2013 estimate, the population of Coast Salish numbers at least 56,590 people, made up of 28,406 Status Indians registered to Coast Salish bands in British Columbia, and 28,284 enrolled members of federally recognized Coast Salish tribes in Washington State.”

Which brings me to apologies, and shallow token gestures.

It is true that our First Nations were, in retrospect, treated shamefully. And today, we as a country have lots to account for: The disproportionate representation of aboriginal folks in prison; the poverty on native lands; an undercurrent in some places of discrimination and stereotype. The list goes on.

Truth and reconciliation is a process that has its roots in South Africa – a concept introduced by Rev. Desmond Tutu. In Canada, we are struggling in an improvised and sometimes ungainly way to navigate the trouble waters of history. To find a way to acknowledge the past and, far more importantly, to discover a better future.

Renaming bodies of water, minting memorial coins, and generally tugging at our collective forelocks does not, in my view, accomplish anything. In fact, I feel that these tokens – like the shiny European objects traded in the past with First Nations people in exchange for land and resources – make matters worse by animating the more reactionary among us to reject valid assessments of history. They are an insult.

Georgia, my lovely daughter, bears her name specifically. She was named for the ocean she, her brother, and I adore. Ought she, in light of an apologist movement dedicated to symbolic correctives, change her name to “Salish?” Nope.

Please debate with me.












  1. Thanks, Anne, for your thoughts. While I respectfully disagree with the whole naming thing, we are both on the same page on the broader issues.

  2. I imagine the Straight of Georgia, or Salish Sea, had many different names for the different people who populated our beautiful corner of paradise. I’ve always felt renaming the straight is mere tokenism. In the Arctic, many settlements, named by European settlers, have reverted back to Inuit names for those locations, even though the settlements are constructs of European culture. Inuit were semi-nomadic and only spent part of the year in these places before they were forcibly settled there by our government.

    What were the names used by the Salish people? Perhaps that is the question that could have been asked before we slapped yet another name on something.

  3. Good analogy, comparing the “token gestures” with the shiny trade objects. That said, I’m all in favour of re-naming it the Salish Sea. What ought to happen is “both/and”–both the re-namings (Salish Sea, Haida Gwaii, etc.) AND more concrete actions to right the wrongs done to indigenous people. Of course it’s easier and less expensive for governments to do only the former. (I hope I spelled “Gwaii” correctly.)

    As for your daughter’s name, it’s up to her but I’d say leave it as is. Some people would say it would be cultural appropriation to change it to “Salish”.

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