For the months before the cedar-carved sign was taken down by Saanich parks, the Tsawout First Nation and its supporters had renamed Mount Douglas as “Pkols.” But a few kilometres to the south on Mount Tolmie, a longstanding signboard reads: Before Europeans settled in the area, Songhees people called this hill “Pkaals.”
At first glance, the First Nations place names look to be nearly the same, meaning confusion possibly crept in during the recording or transcribing the pre-colonial labels for the two significant hills within urban Victoria.
A University of North Texas linguist who interviewed and recorded a number of Saanich First Nations elders in the 1980s and wrote a detailed study of the language, said Pkols is in fact the ancient place name of Mount Douglas.
“I have recorded PKOLS … for Mt. Douglas independently from several Saanich fluent elders,” wrote Timothy Montler in an email to the News on Friday. “It is, without a doubt, a very ancient Saanich name for the place.”
The “Pkaals” name for Mount Tolmie likely emerged from a seminal 1969 article by anthropologist Wilson Duff called The Victoria Treaties, in which he collected southern Vancouver Island aboriginal place names in 1960 from two Songhees residents.
Montler noted the Songhees and Saanich First Nations speak similar dialects of the same language and the two groups weren’t likely to label different geographic locations with the same name. He suspects “Pkaals” is a different word from “Pkols” and is phonetically different, assuming Duff transcribed the names accurately.
“There are so many opportunities for error here we cannot say for sure how accurate these place names are,” Montler wrote. “We do know for sure, however, that (Pkols) is the ancient Saanich name for Mt. Douglas, since we have living native speakers and audio recordings of an older generation of speakers as documentation.”
This detail and nuance could weigh in on Tsawout Chief Erik Pelkey’s formal request earlier this year to the B.C. Geographical Names Office to formally rename the summit of Mount Douglas as Pkols. Tsawout is one of five Saanich Nations.
“We consider the area Pkols. We’d like Mount Doug renamed as Pkols,” Pelkey said.
The park, and presumably the mountain, has been called Mount Douglas since 1889, when the forest was transferred to City of Victoria. Pelkey has said Mount Douglas, named after James Douglas, is an insult since the former colonial governor drew up the Fort Victoria Treaties.
Meanwhile, Saanich parks is working with Pelkey on finding a new location for the Pkols sign at the summit of Mount Doug. At its original location, anchor bolts for the sign had pierced the membrane of the electronics room linked to a communications tower on the mountain.
“We looked at possible sites where we wanted to place the sign permanently,” the chief said. “The site I prefer they will do soil tests and see what is underneath and investigate how to do a permanent foundation.”
Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard expects another week or two until the Pkols sign is back up in a temporary location, which will be somewhere on the summit.
“B.C. received a request for the summit to be renamed, which is a formal process … that will take some time,” Leonard said. “That is why we are referring to it as a temporary location for the sign.
“We’ll get back to them with actual maps so there is no misunderstanding,” he added.
A rededication ceremony will happen when the sign is installed again, Pelkey said.
“I’m happy with (the process),” he said. “The fact (Saanich) took it down without notifying us and stored it caused such an uproar shows how many people are aware of the sign. When I was up there (with Saanich parks) people were looking for the sign. Word has got out.”
A linguist who helped preserve the Saanich language in the 1980s says fluent Saanich speakers called Mount Douglas Pkols.
This sign on Mount Tolmie indicates the original Songhees name of the mountain is Pkaals, which is similar to the Saanich First Nation ancient name of Mount Douglas, Pkols. A linguist who studied and recorded the Saanich language suspects they are similar but different names.