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Powell River divided over potential name change

Residents of Powell River are divided over whether the city's name should be changed.  (Madeline Green/CBC - image credit)
Residents of Powell River are divided over whether the city's name should be changed. (Madeline Green/CBC - image credit)

A small city overlooking the Georgia Strait in B.C.'s Sunshine Coast has become divided over a debate to potentially change its name.

Powell River, with a population of over 13,900 about 120 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, has been at the centre of a heated discussion between its city council, the Tla'amin Nation and several residents.

In 2021, the Tla'amin Nation approached the City of Powell River to consider a name change — which MLA Nicholas Simons says has created a deep community divide.

"Some people say there's division created, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's a half and half division. A lot of young people recognize that part of reconciliation is reconciling the history that we have," Simons said on CBC's On The Island in a special live broadcast from the community.

He says while recommendations from the community could influence the final decision, it ultimately falls on the province to make the call.

Powell River is named after Israel Powell, who served as the superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs for B.C. in 1872.

According to information from the city's Joint Working Group, set up to discuss the name change with residents, Powell had a history aimed at assimilating Indigenous peoples with Euro-Canadian society, including condemning potlatch practices, supporting the establishment of residential schools and encouraging more land assignment for Indigenous families.

The city overlooks the Georgia Strait in B.C.'s Sunshine Coast and is home to over 13,900 people. (Government of B.C.)

Verne Kinley, 81, is part of Concerned Citizens, a group against the proposed name change.

"My daughter has died here, my brother died here and my wife and myself are going to both pass away here," Kinley said, adding he can't imagine calling Powell River anything other than that.

He says the community's identity is associated with the name and changing it would endanger that identity.

Kinley adds the group is concerned by Israel Powell's negative history overlooking the "really good things" he did for First Nations.

For the Tla'amin Nation, Powell's history with residential schools has been a reminder of a traumatic time.

Powell who, as superintendent of Indian affairs in B.C. from 1872 to 1889, was involved in many racist policies involving residential schools.

In an interview with CBC's On The Island, John Hackett, who holds the title of Hegus — the elected head of the legislature who oversees Tla'amin Nation governance — said the legacy of the name is hurtful to the community.

"A lot of our community members are survivors of residential school ... a lot of trauma has come from the survivors, their children and grandchildren," he said.

"We're still living through that today."

Hackett says the First Nation has been at the receiving end of "hurtful" and "insulting" comments on social media, "saying that basically we need to get over residential school ... and changing a name will create division."

"We realize that there's so many different cultures and diversity and we really, really want to work with everybody in a good way."

Powell River Mayor Ron Woznow says the city is looking to include a referendum about the name change as part of the 2026 civic election.

He says since receiving the request, the city has worked to share information widely and allow all residents "an opportunity to express what they feel."

"What we want to do is make sure that what happens is going to be very positive for both the Tla'amin Nation and ourselves [in] five years, 10 years, 50 years."

Pat Martin, 70, says she's concerned by the city's push to decide on a new name before residents have had a chance to vote.

"It has been mentioned many times by council at meetings that they do not have to put any weight on that vote and I don't think that's right," said Martin, noting she is not with Concerned Citizens.

Martin adds many in the community are afraid to share their thoughts on the issue for fear of being called racist.

"There's a huge division in our community and it really makes me sad. It didn't have to be this way," she said, adding she'd love to see the city adopt a joint English and Indigenous name.