The Pétain Falls in the Pétain Basin. Photo courtesy BC Parks

Changing the name of a B.C. mountain follows a robust process

Mt. P├ętain on B.C.-Alberta border named after French war hero who later led the government of Vichy France

The decision to change a place name in B.C. is not taken lightly, and once taken follows a rigorous set of procedures, according to The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD).

A mountain, glacier and creek in the Rocky Mountains are facing a name-change, more than 100 years after their naming. The Townsman sought comment from the Ministry about the process,

Mount Pétain, Pétain Glacier and Pétain Creek — which form the Pétain Basin — sit on the border of B.C. and Alberta, and is a renowned hiking area. The features were named after Marshall Henri Phillipe Pétain, a First World War French general.

A spokesperson for FLNRORD said the Minister delegates this responsibility for naming geographical features to the BC Geographical Names Office (BCGNO) within the Heritage Branch.

The BCGNO makes place naming decisions in accordance with the BC Geographical Naming Policy and Procedures

“Place names reflect the cultural history and heritage values of the province, and Indigenous place names, especially in the original languages of the land, tell the story of the deep history of where we live,” the Ministry spokesperson said.

“Place names are also fundamental to communication on the land and have safety and navigation implications, so it is very important to have the public process and careful consideration such as that described in the policy.”

The mountain in question is on the border with Alberta and is an interprovincial feature. Alberta rescinded the name on their side of the border in 2019.

“In 2020, the BCGNO received a proposal to rescind the names of Mount Pétain, Pétain Glacier and Pétain Creek due to the inappropriateness of commemorating Henri Phillippe Pétain, who had a lead role in the Vichy government in the Second World War and was subsequently conviction of treason following the war,” the Ministry spokesperson said.

The formal proposal to rescind the names set in motion the process under the BC Geographical Naming Policy.

In 1916, Pétain led the French Army to victory at the nine-month-long Battle of Verdun in 1916, the longest battle of the First World War. He was subsequently appointed Commander-in-Chief and was renowned afterwards as a national hero.

His name was given to the mountain in 1918, as a signal honour by the Canadian government.

In 1940, with France about to fall to the Germans, the French president resigned, and Pétain was appointed to the position.

France then signed armistice agreements with Germany and Italy, and Pétain subsequently headed up the government of Vichy France, a collaborationist ally of Nazi Germany that initiated anti-semitic and other racially based policies, including the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

After the war, Pétain was tried and convicted of treason, and found partly responsible for the murder of 76,000 Jews. He was originally sentenced to death, but due to his age and World War I service his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died in 1951.

The Ministry said the cornerstone of the renaming policy is the request for comments on any naming proposal, from all Indigenous and local governments whose territories or boundaries a feature is within, as well as from relevant organizations (e.g. search and rescue groups) that may be impacted by a place name change. The time required for the comment period varies from project to project; it’s not uncommon for the process to take up to 12 months or more.

“After a comment period closes, the BCGNO evaluates all comments received in order to make a decision on the naming proposals in context of the policy. This process may take several weeks or months, depending on the volume and nature of the comments received.”

If a place naming decision is made, the name record in the British Columbia Geographical Names Information System (BCGNIS) is adjusted, and a “robust notification process follows to ensure everyone is aware of the change and official maps are adjusted.”

The Ministry said that if a place name is rescinded, “the place name records online would forever include the history of these names having once commemorated Pétain, but the names would no longer be labelled on provincial maps or distributed as an official place name in B.C.

“Until such a time that a broadly supported naming proposal is brought forward and officially adopted in accordance with the Policy, references to each of these features will likely be in relation to nearby named features or by GPS coordinates, as needed.’

At ta Regional District of East Kootenay board meeting, Friday, Oct. 8, directors voted to support removing the Mount Pétain, Pétain Glacier and Pétain Creek names from provincial maps. Four directors voted against changing the name. Eleven voted in favour.

Also in the vicinity of the Pétain Basin is Mount Foch, on the border of Alberta and B.C. on the Continental Divide. It was named in 1918 after Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the French general and military theorist who served as the Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War.