Say the Name: An Inquiry into Nominal Space

June 1, 2023
Kimberly Duong

Kimberly Duong, Criminology Honours Major, 4th year at York University


What is a monument, a name, but a standing memory? An artifact, an identity marker to make tangible the truth of the past? Are certain statues nothing but a reminder of our history of slavery, of colonialism, of oppression, and of racism?  

There are implications in honouring a historical person and name by identifying a public building or erecting a statue. Perhaps many people do not think of the implications, how having a public building named after someone who played a crucial role in building residential schools or having a monument of these individuals signifies a kind of value: valuing the individual’s historical role, their contributions, and their worth that they represent to the community over the injustices they perpetuated against, for example, Indigenous people.  

For erecting statues and naming places signifies a return to the past, bringing the past into the present. It illustrates how, as a collective, we have chosen to ‘Wash the Names’ as John Steckley would say, whereby many Indigenous names do not come from Indigenous people themselves; instead, it is given to them (by white settlers).  

A presentation by David Newland, a Ph.D. student from Trent University, on Say the Name: An Inquiry into Nominal Space, said this best: place speaks to the value of the person. What does it mean when we name a nominal space after someone? How can we get back to authentic names?  

Can we distinguish between honouring someone versus acknowledging and accepting the past and learning from it?  

Is it possible to witness acts of resistance to the violence inflicted upon Indigenous people through a re-telling of their stories, not through names and monuments, but through the act of tearing them down and renaming them to consider social justice, harm reduction, repair, and healing for communities that were impacted and harmed?  

How people feel in the landscape contributes to place-making. Place-making also includes naming things (statues) and spaces (buildings). Statues and names are closely related in how they can represent a certain kind of dominance or hierarchy – and how both become taken-for-granted norms. Sometimes, statues and names remain largely invisible until they are taken down, until they are contested because they are part of the background. Once removed, the absence is glaring. When power is invisible, it becomes difficult to contest. It becomes too easy to accept the fact that these statues are statements of power and presence in public; they tend to be designed to appear permanent in their power.  

Newland speaks to how the named environment is a virtual environment, working to connect people to spaces and each other. However, the built environment can also exclude certain people and groups. Newland asked the audience members, how can nominal spaces be used better? 

Does renaming buildings and tearing down monuments solve anything, or does it, as Newland said, merely switch the language? Removing a monument or renaming a building that memorializes someone who enacted systemic harm against thousands of people, particularly Indigenous peoples, will not change the outcome, or the systemic change that needs to occur. By removing these statues and building names, we do not determine an ending to the story or the meaning of the story, including and excluding certain people, certain information, and certain facts because naming something is also a form of exclusion.  

But it is the right step in the right direction. If removing a statue or name helps to facilitate healing for the communities that have been and continue to be harmed, then it is the right thing to do. What remains is how we rebuild and cultivate these spaces to make way for better stories in the future.