The problem with Gladstone Drive

Renaming schools, parks, buildings and streets and tearing down statues and landmarks is the current cultural battle zone. 

The real quarrel is about history, which has undergone a transformation over the last several decades into a richer and more complex narrative that poses tough questions about the conduct of our ancestors and our responsibility to both respect their legacy and repair the damage they caused.

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The battle has raged in Prince George, from the renaming of Fort George Park to Lheidli T’enneh Memorial Park to whatever School District 57 trustees decided we’re now supposed to call the new Hart high school – Kelly Road Shas Ti or Shas Ti Kelly Road or Kelly Road or Shas Ti?

Meanwhile, that disgusting mural in the park next to Four Seasons Pool remains. Erected in 1967 to mark Canada’s centennial, today it is an embarrassment – a racist homage glorifying the arrival of white settlers.

Hopefully when Four Seasons Pool meets the bulldozer’s blade once its replacement opens across the street, the mural will go with it.

In the spirit of the times, we should also revisit Gladstone Drive in Lower College Heights.

As the book Street Names of Prince George: Our History explains, many of the streets in that neighbourhood were named after a variety of post-secondary institutions. Some are famous, like Harvard Crescent and Julliard Place, while some are quite obscure (Essex Crescent is named after Essex Community College in Maryland and Fairmont Crescent is named after Fairmont State College in West Virginia, which has since become a university).

The Street Names authors admit to being confused about Gladstone Drive because it doesn’t seem to be named after a college or university like many of the other street names in the area. They suggest it could be named after William Gladstone, the prime minister of Great Britain for 12 years in four different terms starting in 1868.

“A great debater and parliamentarian,” the entry concludes after a brief summary of Gladstone’s political career.

It turns out there is a post-secondary link to Gladstone that might have justified the name of that street in College Heights – Gladstone Hall at the University of Liverpool.

Two weeks ago, however, the University of Liverpool announced it was dropping the name of Gladstone Hall because Gladstone used slaves to operate the family plantation on British Guyana in the Caribbean. Gladstone also unsuccessfully argued against the abolition of slavery while in Parliament.

“While that argument failed, his finances did not,” a BBC news story on the renaming of Gladstone Hall points out. “When slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the Gladstones received more than £90,000, about £9.5m in today's terms, as compensation for the slaves they were forced to free.”

The day after the University of Liverpool announced it was changing the name of Gladstone Hall, Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver-Kingsway, publicly asked for Gladstone Secondary School, located within his riding, to be renamed.

It’s simply impossible to defend retaining the name of a Vancouver school or a Prince George street that honours an individual whose family fortunes came on the backs of slaves and who received a huge government payout (works out to $16 million Canadian dollars) to set those slaves free.

There should be little dissent about renaming the street since there wasn’t even a murmur of dissent when Gladstone Elementary in College Heights was renamed Polaris Montessori Elementary School in 2014.

Bet the kids could come up with an excellent shortlist of names for city council to consider this fall when classes resume and what an opportunity to teach the students about what reconciliation looks like and how to take meaningful steps to right history’s wrongs.

Over to you, Prince George city council. 

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