By Matt Day, Ottawa Sun First posted: Friday, July 17, 2015 07:23 PM EDT | Updated: Friday, July 17, 2015 09:10 PM EDT
Tucked away behind a stretch of farm land in rural Quebec, about two hours north of Ottawa, are beautiful, pristine rapids that glisten in the sunlight.
As striking as these waters are, they have an extremely ugly name.
Welcome to ****** Rapids.
A quick search on Google shows that, yes, this is the correct spelling of the bit of choppy water along the Gatineau River no wider than the length of a hockey rink. The name of the town that's home to the waterway, Bouchette, doesn't even show up on Google Maps. Just the glaring name of the rapids.
So how did the rapids get their name? It's a tale that's been obscured by the passage of time.
And, furthermore, when it comes to such anachronistic monikers -- and symbols, as shown by the recent spotlight on the Confederate flag -- what do we do? How do we handle these leftover pieces of history's racism?
Bouchette resident Pierre Cecire says the rapids are historic and that there's no need to change their name.
His family has owned the land that backs onto the rapids for generations.
The cattle farmer says people have come knocking at his door curious to see the rapids. One man even tried to rename them Eagle Rapids.
That didn't fly.
"A long time ago, more than 100 years ago, a black man died in a log jam. He was dead in the water," Cecire says in heavily accented English.
"It's just a name. Yeah, it's weird, bizarre, but I think because it's historical it's OK."
That tale differs by degree from the official record.
The Province of Quebec officially recognized the name in 1983.
The Toponymy Commission -- the government department responsible for the names of places -- attributes its origins to 1912, when Father Joseph Guinard, travelling down the Gatineau River in a canoe, discovered two dead black people and buried them there. The details of what had happened to them are unknown.
As the record goes, Father Guinard said a mass and christened the rapids in memory of the deceased.
It should be noted that the N-word is also an antiquated term for a steam-powered tool formerly used in sawmills to turn logs. For more than 150 years, the Gatineau River was a workplace for timber raftsman.
Regardless of which version of the story is more accurate, do good intentions of the time ease the sting of the derogatory term?
There's no simple answer for what to do with names such as ****** Rapids, says Dominique Marshall, a history professor at Carleton University.
"Naming cities and places is a political thing," she says.
Marshall says many factors have to be considered before a name should be changed.
"The history of names is very interesting because it tells us about the society of that time," Marshall says. "If you change the name, you erase the fact people could say that in broad daylight back then. But if you carry on using it you might be condoning an inequality that has never been acceptable."
There have been many high-profile name changes in the past. Before the First World War, Kitchener, Ont., was called Berlin, but that was changed during the war to erase any Canadian connection to Germany.
More recently, the France hamlet of La-mort-aux-Juifs (translated to "Death to Jews") came under fire last year for its distasteful nature.
The residents were reluctant to change the name.
Closer to home, another area resident, Athanase Ndikumana, doesn't see it as clear-cut that the name should be changed.
Ndikumana, a pastor for four parishes, including the church in Bouchette, is black -- one of the only black people in the small community.
"There's a respect of fact. If it's named that with the intention of black to be less and white to be high then, yes, it should be changed," said Ndikumana.
Others in the area aren't a fan of a name they feel mars beautiful Bouchette.
"I wouldn't go for it," says Jackie Chamberland, who works at the town's only general store. She lowers her voice: "I wouldn't go for n-----. It needs to be changed."
Bouchette's administrative assistant Raymonde Tremblay says that, to date, she isn't aware of the town hasn't receiving any complaints.
Quebec's other N-word names
The rapids in Bouchette aren't the only place in the province with the controversial word used in its name. Below is a list of names still used in Quebec today, despite the word's negative connotation.
Niger River - From 1989 to 2006, there wasn't just one 'G' used for the Niger River, but two. The river, which flows into Lake Lyster near the U.S.-Canadian border, got its name from the presence of African Americans near the banks, according to Quebec's Toponymy Commission. It is believed the river was used by slaves looking to flee north in the early 19th century. The book Forests and Clearings: The History of Stanstead County published in 1874 states the name of the river comes from the 1804 establishment of a family of blacks named Tatton.
****** Rock - Located near Saint-Armand, Que., 50 km south of Montreal, it is actually a hill, according to the Toponymy Commission. The commission states at the foot of the hill is a cemetery where between six and twenty slaves were believed to be buried between the years of 1794 and 1883.
******-Eddy, First rapids, Second rapids, Third rapids -- Made official in 1988, the origin for the name of this series of rapids is unknown by the Toponymy Commission. The rapids begin about 115 km west of Montreal.
Pierre Cecire stands on the banks of ****** Rapids along the Gatineau River in Bouchette, Que., on Monday July 13, 2015. MATT DAY/OTTAWA SUN