By Allison Lampert
MONTREAL (Reuters) - As the United States debates public display of the Confederate battle flag, the Canadian province of Quebec is considering changing the names of 11 locations, including lakes and rapids, that contain a racial epithet.
The Quebec Toponymy Commission, which manages place names in the mostly French-language province, is due to meet later this year to discuss whether to rename sites like Nigger Rapids, a stretch of the Gatineau River about 120 kilometers north of Ottawa, said Julie Letourneau, a spokeswoman for the commission.
"The commission is very sensitive to what is happening around us and people's perceptions," said Letourneau.
According to a Canadian Broadcasting Corp report, the rapids were named in memory of a black couple who drowned there in the early 1900s.
The CBC quoted Jean-Pierre LeBlanc, a spokesman for the commission, as saying, "It was meant to describe the people who died. There was no pejorative connotation then as there is now."
The June 17 shooting of nine black people inside a South Carolina church by a white man who had been photographed with the Confederate flag triggered a debate over public display of the U.S. civil war relic. The flag is considered by many to be a symbol of slavery and racism.
Charmaine Nelson, an art historian who teaches about slavery at McGill University in Montreal, said she has mixed feelings about changing the place names.
Nelson said that while the term “nigger” is deeply offensive, these names also serve as a reminder that slavery existed in Canada. “It you start to wipe out these place names, it makes it easier to say it didn’t happen here.”
According to the CBC report, the commission has recognized six place names that include the N-word in English and five that include the word nègre, which in French can mean both Negro and the N-word.
The report cited a commission reference to a hill 50 kilometers south of Montreal that contains the N-word in its name. Black slaves were buried at the site from 1794 until slavery was abolished in 1833.
In Quebec's Laurentides region, the commission has recognized three rapids along the Red River that have the N-word in their names but it does not detail the origin of the names on its website, according to the CBC report.
(Reporting By Allison Lampert)