The Platinum Ticket by David Beynon

The Platinum Ticket by David Beynon
Shortlisted for The Terry Pratchett Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now First Novel Prize

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Place Names

I had an interesting discussion the other weekend at the Storytelling Workshop I attended. When we broke for a snack I got chatting with this semi-retired gent called Tom. Tom first came to Canada back in the mid fifties from British Guyana. Tom is part of the 32% of the Guyanese population of African descent and I only mention that because it came up in later conversation.

Tom works as a naturalist with the University of Guelph and he’s part of a hiking organization and it shows. He must be in his seventies and looks to be in his mid fifties at the most. He spoke to me about coming to Canada in the late fifties and the challenges facing an immigrant looking for work. Time and time again he would go to job interviews and each time, although he met the qualifications for the job, he was sent away with the same message – you don’t have any Canadian work experience. It’s a little disappointing to hear that we haven’t come very far in 50 years. Last year I wrote The Long Ride Home with a character called Ustad. Ustad is based upon a real person and that person relayed the same experience that faces newcomers even now.

Tom’s problems continued until after one interview he’d finally had enough. After bring told he didn’t have enough Canadian work experience this mild, gentle man said “With all due respect, sir, how on earth do you expect me to have work experience from Canada if no one in Canada will give me the chance to acquire some?” Tom turned and walked out the door. He was crossing the parking lot heading to a bus stop when the interviewer caught up to him. “You know what, Tom?” he said as he steered him back toward the office. “I’ve been disqualifying good candidates for a long time because they didn’t have any Canadian work experience and it took you to point out to me how foolish that policy has been. We have a job for you here, if you’ll take it.”

Tom took the job and stayed for many years but even after he resigned to further his education he remained friends with that man who changed his mind and hired him. Tom told me the gentleman died a few years back.

Our conversation turned to heritage and connectedness and Tom told me that one of the reasons he so enjoys hiking is that he loves to feel an intimacy with the places he’s chosen to call home. He asked me about where I grew up and when I told him Grey County he asked me a question.

“Have you ever heard of the Nigger Line up there.”

It’s very difficult to describe the effect of having the word “nigger” thrust into conversation by a very soft-spoken gentleman of African descent. I wasn’t shocked, nor was I uncomfortable. It was simply unexpected. I nodded. I knew the road.

There are several such roads in that part of Southern Ontario that bear names like Negro Lane, Negro Creek Road and although the sign reads “Negro Line” I must admit it was almost always called “The Nigger Line” when I was growing up.

“Yes, I know the road. Why do you ask?”

Tom went on to tell me that about fifteen or so years ago some well-intentioned white people began to petition local council to change the name of the road. It seems they found the word “Negro” offensive (I suppose they might have found the word “Line” offensive but that’s probably a little less likely). Tom caught wind of this and felt the need to address the issue. Apparently he spoke before someone (a committee, a council, a public meeting – I’m not sure) and pointed out that it is a little known fact that lily white rural Ontario has always had the influence and aid of historic yet mostly forgotten black pioneers. In fact about five hundred meters from where I sit typing this entry there was a community of over a dozen black families in the 1830’s known as the Pierpoint Settlement. There’s nothing left of it – not even a plaque to commemorate it (Hmmm…maybe someone on the local heritage committee needs to address that…). Tom’s point was that to sanitize the names of these roads and creeks in the name of political correctness is to do a grave disservice to history. The only reason we know that a black person once lived in the area and pioneered the farmland is because he lived at the end of a road called “The Nigger Line”. I don’t know how successful Tom’s efforts were because a Google search nets me no results for “Negro Line” but I’m happy to report that “Negro Creek Road” still sits where it always has just South of Chatsworth.

We discussed also the more recent issue raised when a different bunch of well-intentioned white people (and perhaps some Chinese folks) wanted to change the name of Chinaman’s Peak to something less offensive. I remember the controversy and the one sane voice belong to an Historian who pointed out if we can discover the name of the Chinese rail worker who climbed the mountain then by all means, let’s rename it, but until then the only reason we know it was once scaled by someone of Chinese descent is because of the name.

The whole idea of revisionist history doesn’t sit well with me. The same people who want to change place names today are the ones that will be looking to sanitize Mark Twain tomorrow. My imagination is fired by the variety of place names we find in our day to day travels. Why is Irish Lake called Irish Lake? Were there ever otters in Otter Creek? What’s really at the end of Old Mill Road?

I feel the world is a far more interesting place with its Chinaman Peaks and Negro Creek Roads.