Every year, as we approach Victoria Day weekend, the debate about Empire Days rears its ugly head. And it is ugly; even the most closeted racist reveals themselves by refusing to acknowledge that the word “Empire” is loaded with meaning, and damaging to the spirits of those that were here before the British forced colonization upon them. This year’s foofaraw is particularly heated because the Nanaimo Empire Days Celebration Society’s (NEDCS) grant funding from the City was called into question.
Words are important. Words have power. Celebrating Empire Days is tantamount to celebrating the devastation that continues to haunt First Peoples here generations later. The word “Empire” has power and history and comes with a lot of bad feelings.
Celebrations of Queen Victoria’s birth have been ongoing in Nanaimo since 1863. According to the NEDCS website, the society, “Founded to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24, [it] has become an organization of citizens concerned with the heritage of Nanaimo and the future of its young people.” Interestingly, the term “Empire” doesn’t appear anywhere on the site, except in their name, of course.
But here’s the thing: as the power of the Empire, seated in the United Kingdom, waned they thought it prudent to drop the word “Empire” from their celebrations. They adopted the more inclusive term, “Commonwealth,” without any apparent loss of heritage or history. That was in 1958. If the Brits don’t think celebrating “Empire” is a great idea anymore (and they haven’t for a long time) who are we, humble Nanaimo, to push the point? NEDCS actually registered their non-profit society in 1965, seven years after the UK moved past the word “Empire.” Really, Nanaimo? So special, are we?
From the outside, NEDCS seems to be ruled by antiquated thinkers who have dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge that “Empire” is not “just” a word, that words that were okay in the past aren’t okay today. People have said that a name change would erase 140 years of history. I don’t see that the UK lost any of its history when it changed to “Commonwealth Days.” And I’m not so sure that this history could be so easily erased anyway—it has left deep scars. This history of colonization and subjugation by the British Empire isn’t going to be forgotten any time soon.
If “Empire” is just a word, then why fight so hard to keep it? (This is the local peanut gallery’s primary argument.) Obviously it has a deep emotional meaning for proponents for the NEDCS who recently voted 14-3 in favour of keeping their name, even though it means they won’t receive much-needed grant funding from the City to run the event. At press time, the NEDCS executive and board was recommending that the membership vote to cancel this year’s event, but that meeting date was unconfirmed. These people are so principled, so offended, that they’d rather see the event die than accept change.
It has also been said that the Society feels bullied by City Council for withholding the grant funding. Want to talk about the power of words? The word “bullied” is pretty loaded itself, and its wanton use here reveals some inconsistencies in the thinking of society members who aren’t, it turns out, particularly thoughtful about the language they use. There’s an irony here that we’ll save for another day. Back to the money.
It should be said that Empire Days hasn’t sat well with a lot of people in town for a long time, and our newly elected City Council chose, finally, to take a stand. Continuing financial support of NEDCS is tantamount to approval, and it turns out the majority of the current Council are unwilling to continue supporting a celebration of “Empire.”
Nonprofit organizations of all kinds are welcomed to apply for grant funding from the City—free money—each year to ease the burden of carrying out their work. The City determines who will receive that funding. Let’s be clear: the City is not withholding the NEDCS’ funding—it wasn’t theirs in the first place.