The City of Vancouver and Province of BC have given indigenous names to two of Vancouver’s more significant open spaces.

The open space on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery is šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square – ‘a place where a cultural gathering occurs.’ The plaza in front of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn – ‘the Walks for Reconciliation‘.

The names incorporate languages of all three First Nations people — Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh. And it’s a great idea; anyone who’s been to New Zealand knows what a difference it makes to have Maori being used (‘Kia ora most obviously) by everyone.

Which then raises the question here: are these plaza names meant to be practically applied?

It’s one thing to add them on to the existing names, rather like the signage on the Sea to Sky Highway.  But here it’s hard to tell the two plaza names apart at a glance. It’s almost impossible to spell them. And who, without assistance, would even attempt to say them?

The city has produced a video to help:

But even here, they give two different pronunciations.

If there is not a simple way to spell and say these names — phonetically presented on an accompanying sign using common keyboard spelling — it leaves the suspicion that this is either a token effort, not to be taken that seriously, or it’s another way of guilt-tripping.

Photo credit: Pierre Martineau/CBC


  1. I hope the signage for “šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ” Square comes with an intermediary gloss, because for the well-intended supporters of this name change, the real choice for the non Salish-speakers out there will be whether to simply butcher the pronunciation or ignore it.

  2. If the purpose of renaming these places is to foster a greater understanding between native and non-native peoples about a shared history, this seems like a particularly hard way to do it.

  3. Other seemingly difficult languages like Swahili, Czech, or Vietnamese at least share a mostly-common Romanized alphabet; without even that, everybody will likely just call the place “QE Square” and leave the Squamish name as window dressing for First Nations speakers and very enthusiastic tourists. Not good.

    OTOH, “S’tlaken Hw’tlahshen” is definitely not 100% authentic, but it’s something to work with (like how many say “Porto” Rico instead of Puerto), and can be pronounced and replicated without Youtube guides or a dozen keyboard macros. Much more likely to become part of Vancouver like Kitsilano or Tsawwassen… can you imagine “Xats’alanexw” or “Sc̓əwaθən” in everyday usage?

  4. A written name that the vast majority of users are unable to interpret is, IMHO, useless. I don’t have a problem with the native peoples adopting roman glyphs and diacritical marks to create written forms of their languages – but expecting people unversed in those languages to be able to interpret them is like expecting all Vancouverites to recognize “孫逸仙” (Sun Yat Sen).

    If these names are to have any practical value for most users, they’re going to have to be converted into roman characters that best approximate their native sounds. The resulting sound may not be perfect – but, like “Peking” or “Bejing”, at least people know what the heck you’re talking about.

  5. Put me down in favour of an official anglicised name. Preferably with multilingual signage, like at UBC. I recognise that it really shouldn’t be that much to ask people to pick up a few words of the local indigenous languages, but I need an intermediate step that I can say with confidence.

  6. FWIW, there isn’t a politician on the North Shore who hasn’t managed to do a reasonable job of handling “Tsleil-Waututh.” As do most municipal employees who need to work along with them.

  7. How many folks speak either of these languages?

    What is the minimum size of a “nation” with its own language ? 1000 ? 5000? 10,000,000 ? 500? 250 ? What ?

    1. Note to Thomas:
      A nation is a stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, ethnicity or psychological make-up manifested in a common culture. A nation is distinct from a people, and is more abstract, and more overtly political than an ethnic group.
      Nation – Wikipedia

      There is nothing about the definition which requires a bazilionty people. Are we to assume the converse that those who share a common language must be the same nation? If so, a good number of Canadians, Kiwis, Scots (etc), as might the Austrians, those in the Tirol, etc.

  8. If these names receive any amount of common adaptation I think it’s probably most likely to be the Squamish side rather than the Halkomelem side, as the Squamish words (ie. Xwtl’a7shn) are significantly more simple to type on a mobile phone.

    It’s not too difficult for English speakers to learn how some of the unique letter groupings common in Squamish but not English result in certain sounds. For example once it’s pointed out, it’s not that difficult to recall that “Wh” in Maori is an “f” sound and to pronounce Whangamata correctly. Certainly our local indigenous languages are more tricky for English speakers than Maroi but it’s not an insurmountable problem.

    1. You’re not wrong Tavis, but unique letters in Maori and most other Romanized languages at least share common letters and phonics. For example, with the German “ß” (actually “ss”), Scandinavian “j” (actually “y”) or Chinese Pinyin “zh” (like an “sh” combined with a “j”), people can read the whole word and take a decent guess. Somebody more knowledgeable can always correct them later.

      By comparison, “Skwxwú7mesh” might as well be Cyrillic with the 7 and all the Xs. Add conventional consonants together to get “Sk’hwomesh,” and it becomes both (relatively?) accurate and accessible.

  9. For what it’s worth, the names were chosen by representatives appointed by the three nations and it was extremely important to them that the orthography be theirs.

    Describing the nations’ desire for how to express their own languages in written form as token is an interesting characterization. For my part, I would see passing a motion supporting repatriating indigenous language and then telling the indigenous governments how to spell their own language as token as it gets and an extension of the colonial attitudes that have done so much damage to indigenous individuals, families, communities and nations.

    At the same time, the cool thing about opinions is that they are open to dispute while the facts are not. If you want to learn more about the process that led to these names, the languages (which are two different languages and not two different pronunciations of one language as someone suggested) or the work of reconciliation at the City, happy to share more info. Send me an email.

  10. If ever there were places crying out to use indigenous names they would be Second Beach and Third Beach. But while we’re at that I would question the name of every beach starting of course with English Bay and Spanish Banks. All beaches would have far more significance to First Nations than some otherwise random point on the land defined later by our street grid and development pattern.

    IMO, as a matter of naming policy, I would have the indigenous name and spelling be primary and the best approximation of pronunciation in roman characters also be shown as subordinate. I think it would be easier for people to learn the nuances of the sound after they feel comfortable with the name in familiar spelling.

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