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What’s in a name?

by Archives March 18, 2008

When you change the name of something in Quebec, you pull on old strings by rewriting history – Dorchester to Rene Levesque, Parc to Henri-Bourassa, Scott Towel to Sponge Towel – it’s never a smooth transition.
Re-igniting the name debate, a grass roots movement wants to rename Lionel-Groulx subway station to Oscar Peterson.
I’m all for honouring this man’s fine achievements. Oscar Peterson was an international jazz legend, born just a jazzy walk away from the very subway station in question (what are the odds?). Loved by many, respected by all, Peterson was a beautiful individual. He broke out of Canada long before Celine, Morissette, Young or Gratton (think big, sti). Man could Peterson play the piano, and man could he smile.
On the other hand, Abbé Lionel-Adolphe Groulx wasn’t exactly the smiling type. Best known as a prominent priest, historian, nationalist, and traditionalist, his idea of happiness lay in a sovereign and homogenous French Canada. His ultimate goal was the preservation of Quebec culture. To do so, he felt it necessary to severely limit immigration, specifically Jewish immigration. Now his name stands on the subway station smack dab in the centre of multi-ethnic Place St. Henri.
Fittingly, those pressing to honour Peterson are equally partial to the idea of dishonouring Lionel-Groulx for his racist undertones. This symbolic blow would ring loud and clear: the times have changed.
Since the two men’s stories have once again seen the light of day in the wake of the name change debate, we all seem to understand the point everyone’s trying to get across: Groulx, evil, Peterson, good.
Call me the devil’s advocate, but Groulx wasn’t all bad; he just tried to keep French Canada, well, French. He just didn’t grasp the finer points on the freedoms that should be granted in North America – this is meant to be the land of opportunity for all from near and far.
It should be remembered, Lionel-Groulx wasn’t the only protective nationalist in his day. Alexander Mackenzie King didn’t exactly invite immigrants to come over. Churchill wasn’t throwing any parties, and the world was wedged between ideologies of fascism and communism. Groulx seems quaintly at home in this staunch and protectionist past. So, any argument that Lionel-Groulx should be dishonoured based on the ground that he played out a darker chapter in history is like saying, “burn the books, Mackenzie King and Churchill, you bigots, get out of here.” Kind of makes you think about that thing they say about remembering history, what was that again? Oh, how soon we forget.
A proposal came from a historian from University of McGill, Dr. Jarrett Rudy. He believes the solution lies in a hyphenated Oscar Peterson-Lionel-Groulx subway station.
Intuitively, this hyphenated name proposal seems like a bona fide example of political correctness in all its irrational and insensitive glory.
Counter-intuitively, I have grown to like the idea of a hyphenated name. It doesn’t erase the past. It would stand to represent our ever-changing cultural climate in Quebec. Let these two men’s legacies mingle so that we can remember history while representing hope. Maybe one level of the two-platformed station could be Groulx themed, staunchly catholic, while the other could be Peterson themed, jazzy and fun. Then we could decide what path we like traveling on best.
Groulx represents the lengths to which we’ll go to protect something we’re in fear of losing. Fear seems to be the governing force of any decision, instinctively, as homo sapiens we decide based on fight or flight. Today, fear is driving foreign policy. How can we deny that lessons can be learnt through an understanding of Lionel-Groulx? Linking his name to Peterson’s – nominally and otherwise – could draw a bridge from our over protectionist instincts towards something more beautiful, accepting and understanding. There is something so avant-garde about the idea of a Groulx-Peterson metro. People might ask why the peculiar name, and we’d have a good answer to give them.

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