Jane’s Walk—taking place May 5–6 this weekend—is a festival of free walking tours where local people share their knowledge and perspectives on history. Yet, which stories are told? When we look at our city with an analytical eye, which people do we see commemorated in street signs and statues? More precisely, which themes and people are absent?
This year, Jane’s Walk has a number of tours that touch on the meaning inferred through the naming of spaces, the people who are commemorated, and the lack of public recognition for women, Indigenous peoples, people of colour, and civil activists, to name just a few.
This aspect of history relates to contemporary issues. On Wellington Street, the Langevin Block building has been renamed due to the namesake’s involvement in residential schools. People in the southern United States are debating removing statues of confederate leaders. On a more benign note, even the crowdsourced decision to name a scientific vessel Boaty McBoatface was put under scrutiny.
We spoke with two walk leaders: Amy Kishek of Bad + Bitchy Podcast, and Sarah Button, an urban planner and former tour guide. While the interviews were conducted separately, they are paired in this article to generate conversation.
Sarah Button and Jaime Posen are leading a walk through Centretown while speaking to the stories behind the street names. They will be speaking about some of the wealthy landowners and politicians who became commemorated as boulevards and roads downtown.
Sarah observed that cities often see a local desire to name streets after those who have played a role in world history, which leads to trends across municipal and national borders.
We found that there are a lot of streets originally named after women that were renamed for men.
“We share a lot of street names with the rest of the Commonwealth—especially royalty and offspring of royalty—which leads to interesting similarities. You can locate yourself in a shared common global history through common street names.” She provided the example of George Street—that Ottawa and Saint John’s have a similar street (both with lots of bars).
As cities grow and places are renamed, that local influence tends to fade. “We found that there are a lot of streets originally named after women (for instance, Nicholas Spark’s daughter) that were renamed for men.”
Feminism and Spaces
Amy Kishek’s walk will visit the familiar landmarks of Parliament Hill, the Supreme Court, and Ottawa City Hall. She will speak about the history of women in these spaces, share stories about the people who have been commemorated, and give insight into the process of getting these monuments in place.
“For the Women are Persons monument, for example, the [Famous 5 Foundation] got the land from the government but had to fundraise all the money privately to build that monument,” said Kishek.
“Which is not something that is common—most other monuments are granted funding by The Department of Canadian Heritage or some other government entity.”
Until we challenge the idea that generals of wars deserve a statue above people who are doing civil activism… this just reinforces that idea that some people belong here… and others don’t.
She uses the public space themselves to host the discussions. Kishek will also speak about the absences—the people and events that lack visibility, including the stories of contributions made by Black people, Indigenous people and persons of colour.
“Until we challenge the idea that generals of wars deserve a statue above people who are doing civil activism, or deserve their story to be told… this just reinforces that idea that some people belong here—that some people have a right to make decisions—and others don’t.”
The dialogue continues
What role do public spaces have in making people feel included, or alienated? Can a name really have this much of an impact? In fact, representation and public recognition are important factors in making people feel like they belong.
“It’s not to say that the people our streets are named after aren’t important or interesting,” said Button. “But maybe that’s not the full story. Maybe if we had more diversity in our street names it would reflect a more comprehensive picture of where we’ve been.”
Cities, their demographics, and the way we speak about history will change. The way we commemorate spaces should be open to change as well. As Kishek said, “I think you can feel an affinity for a place, but a place doesn’t have to be static to preserve an identity that it purportedly has. How do we adapt and grow based on who is here and how people are wanting to engage, and what our needs are now?”
Maybe if we had more diversity in our street names it would reflect a more comprehensive picture of where we’ve been.
“I like the idea of community,” Amy continued. “Communities can be singular, or overlapping. You can have layers of community. I’m generally put off by advocating for a city to have an identity, because there are others who don’t want to have that identity. There’s a plurality of views here, and that should be celebrated.”
Sarah spoke about Ottawa’s legacy of Indigenous place names—many of which are not reflected in our streets or neighbourhoods, or have been anglicized. Yet, this too might be changing. An example is the Adàwe Crossing connecting Somerset Street East with Overbrook.
“We’re starting to do better,” said Sarah. “I think things are changing. I hope they are.”
You might be interested in these walks:
Feminism, Society and Spaces
Saturday, May 5 at 11:30am
Intersections of History: Stories Behind Downtown Ottawa Street Names
Saturday, May 5 at 2pm
Pseudo-public spaces: Do you feel you belong here?
Saturday, May 5 at 1:30pm
Waterfront Reconciliation? Rue Jacques Cartier after the 2017 flood
Sunday, May 6 at 10:30am
“Urban Renewal” Again? Displacement in the 21st-Century
Sunday, May 6 at 12pm
Jane’s Walk is a festival of free walking tours happening in cities all over the world including Ottawa-Gatineau on May 5 and 6, 2018. All walks are free of charge. Visit janeswalkottawa.ca for the complete schedule.