Friday, February 18, 2011

Naming Our Places:


One of the fundamental rights that people have is the ability to name where they live. Last fall, Canada Post, with no consultation, changed my post office address from what it had been for thirty years, Boswell, to a new address, Kuskanook.
And even though this is a small change, and with no big impact on my life, I found it irritating. So lately, I have been examining why this arbitrary address change disturbs me so much.
I am a Canadian writer, a university professor and an academic researcher. And, I am also a lifelong organic farmer on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake in south-eastern BC. I have written a number of books set around Kootenay Lake. I have also written a memoir about my life growing up here on our beautiful farm on the East Shore. In all of these books, I have referred to the area where I live and where our farm is, as Boswell. When I go on book tours or travel to teach, I tell people I live in Boswell. No one knows where it is, of course, so then I happily explain that Boswell is more a concept than a place, a thirty mile long community where everyone is your next-door neighbour. Interestingly Boswell got its name from Earl Grey making a literary reference to Samuel Johnson, who wrote a book called, the Life of Boswell.

So being a Boswellian, born and bred, is a big part of my identity as a person and also as a writer. Sense of place and sense of ecological identity, is also an important area of my research.
On the other hand, the name, Kuskanook, (or Kuskonook) has never played much of a role in our collective community identity, either historically, geographically, or currently.
Kuskanook, for me, was the place where my beloved friend for my whole life, Alan Wilson, was born, grew up and then died tragically from brain cancer. His house and his parent's house are gone now -- buried under a mud slide. So Kuskanook is now identified by most people in the broader region as a place with a boat ramp and a beach. It’s not seen by anyone as a name for a region, nor is it a name that is used by people, local and otherwise for our area. And in fact, historically, it never has been use, as a generic regional name or a 'civic' (As Canada Post terms it) name, for our area. Why Canada Post has suddenly decided I live in “Kuskanook” and where they got such information is a complete mystery to me.

In the last few years, as more people have moved here, Boswell, as a regional description of a place, has begun to acquire specific place names within itself, Armstrong Bay, Kootenay Bay, Sanca Park (Sanka?), Destiny Bay, Mountain Shores. Traditionally, all of us have been served by the Boswell Post Office, we go to the Boswell Community Hall for wonderful dinners, and a few years ago, we all celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the community of Boswell.

But last November, Canada Post, and the Regional District, together or separately, it's not clear which, designated a post office name change for our community, with no community input or opportunity for reaction, which strikes me as an oddly undemocratic way to make such a change.
Since then, despite many people emailing and phoning both Canada Post and the Regional District asking for a community meeting or an opportunity to at least have their say but so far, nothing has been done.
So what bothers me is two things; the arbitrariness of this change, that it was done with no community input, but also the fact that someone from far away with no knowledge of this place and obviously little understanding of the nature of this community, has decided what it will be called.
The issue is about community identity and our sense of where we live and our right to name our place for ourselves and to each other, and to our friends and business colleagues.
Our farm is a bit of a community hub; people come here to garden, to take writing classes, to swim with our family, to visit, to buy books, to have dinners and lunches and partake of other events. And to all of these people, I say, and will continue to say, "Oh, yes, I'm in Boswell."
I would very much appreciate a community meeting to discuss all this and have asked for one, but the silence from Canada Post around the name change, and the community reaction to it, has continued.