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EDITORIAL: It is time to talk about renaming Mount Pétain

What's in a name? Would a mountain peak and ridge named after a French Nazi sympathizer still provide as sweet a hike in the Kananaskis backcountry? That is the question we would like to put to Bow Valley residents and Albertans.

What's in a name?

Would a mountain peak named after a French Nazi collaborator still provide as sweet a hike in the Kananaskis backcountry?

That is the question we would like to put to Bow Valley residents and Albertans.

Mount Pétain – a 3,196 metre summit in K-country – offers stunning views of the Canadian Rockies, but its namesake has a lot to answer for when it comes to the history books.

The name was bestowed upon the mountain in 1918 in honour of Marshall Phillipe Pétain (1856-1951), a French soldier and statesman. He was considered an honoured war hero of the First World War. Pétain Glacier, near Mount Joffre, the Pétain Basin, Pétain Creek and Pétain Creek Falls all bear his name. 

In fact, there are dozens of mountains and features in the region named after ships and figures from the First World War. 

Irish surveyor A.O. Wheeler was at one point commissioned by the Canadian government to name mountains along the Alberta-B.C. border after ships involved in the Battle of Jutland. The HMS Galatea and HMS Inflexible are two examples of that naming process. 

Pétain was considered a hero for his defence of Verdun in 1916. He was named commander-in-chief the next year and marshal of France the year after that. 

However, his actions during the Second World War have made him infamous as a Nazi collaborator and dictator of Vichy France. He was tried for treason and sentenced to death, but ended up serving a life sentence instead. 

For several years, residents of the Bow Valley have been exploring the issue of how settlers named mountains, peaks and all sorts of geographical features. We have been doing the hard work set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action to recognize all these places, rivers, mountains and plants already had names before white people "discovered" them.

Recently, a ceremony was held to honour the traditional Stoney Nakoda First Nation name for a peak on Sir Charles Stewart Mountain, that had come to be known unofficially by a name that was both racist and misogynistic.

In Banff, work is underway to to remove that same racist and misogynistic term from the geography. 

There is also work being done to recognize the traditional Indigenous name for Tunnel Mountain, as Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain.

We must not stop there. This work is not done and it is important for us to cast our gaze further afield into Kananaskis Country and recognize that naming dozens of mountains after a First World War naval battle that didn't even involve Canadian troops or ships in any way whatsoever – may have reached its best before date.

Even if Wheeler's work to use names from the Battle of Jutland is deemed as still being appropriate – Pétain has to go.

This situation is a lesson we Canadians need to continue working on and that we can do better. It also means our work on challenging colonial narratives through geographic naming has only just begun. 

The Stoney Nakoda First Nation several years ago submitted a significant application to the provincial government to rename 161 geographic places and communities.

We hope they included this particular mountain, creek, and falls within that application and that the Alberta Geographical Names Program recognizes the importance of this work and we see some movement on this issue sooner rather than later.