Imagine being embarrassed every time you ordered a pizza for delivery, filled out your address, or showed your driver’s licence. For a handful of residents who live on Swastika Trail, in Puslinch, 20 minutes southeast of Guelph, it happens all the time.
Last month, the street received international attention after local residents in favour of changing the street name contacted local press and human rights organizations. Nearly every major Canadian news outlet reported the story, and the Times of Israel referred to the residents as “embarrassed Canadian locals.”
For decades, Puslinch residents have debated whether to rename the privately owned road, which was purchased in the early 1920s and named for the symbol’s pre-Nazi associations with good fortune and well-being. In August of this year, the Puslinch Council formally asked the Bayview Cottagers’ Association (BCA), which comprises the road’s owners and residents, to consider renaming the street, even offering $500 for a new street sign. But on November 1, the BCA voted 25 to 20 in favour of retaining the street name (one ballot was spoiled).
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“Given the current climate of increased demonstrations of white supremacy and intolerance, I am shocked we are having this discussion,” says Jennifer Horton, who has lived on the street since July 2009. “We aren’t talking about the history of the symbol — we are asking for the word ‘swastika,’ a term associated with evil and violence, to be removed from our street signs.”
The national attention this story received has frustrated some residents, who believe it is an attempt to manipulate the debate.
“The majority voted to retain the name,” says Jack Ward, who has lived on Swastika Trail with his wife Joyce for more than 20 years. Jack is adamant that the issue was decided as soon as the votes were counted. “Is it democracy in action to have those who lost then widen the field through media exposure, making the folks who voted for retention appear insensitive, unaware, and even racist?”
Lori Wyszynski and her husband, Paul, the current owners of the road, also believe it should keep its original name. She insists that it provides an opportunity to educate people about the swastika’s original meaning: “It has an amazing history and should not be denied because one individual decided to use it in a horrible way.”
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Debates over place names are nothing new in Ontario. Squaw River in Peterborough was rechristened Miskwaa Ziibi in 1993 after its original name was deemed unacceptable by the Ontario Board of Geographic Names. The 500-plus residents of the town of Swastika, Ontario, have for 80 years resisted changing its name, arguing that it does not refer to the Nazi symbol — in 2008, the town’s historian, Carolyn O’Neil, told the National Post, “You don’t write off history just because one person uses something wrong.”
But those in Puslinch who are pushing for renaming argue that the swastika cannot be reclaimed or redeemed. Chris Smith, who lives on the street with his wife Melissa, recounts the time his son, who was in Grade 5 at the time, wrote the word “swastika” on the asphalt in chalk while playing with friends at school. “The teacher on lunch supervision noticed this and escorted him to the office immediately,” Smith says.
Although his son explained that he lived on Swastika Trail and was merely writing his street’s name, the school pursued disciplinary action. “I got a call from the school, and they wanted to expel him and call the police. They let us know that this was considered a hate crime. If the school system takes the swastika that seriously, then it must be unacceptable to keep it the name of our street.”
Aidan Fishman, interim national director of the League for Human Rights at B’Nai Brith, a Jewish advocacy group that fights racism and anti-Semitism, wrote a letter to the BCA in early November in which he implored residents to rename the street. “When you use the term ‘swastika’ in North America, everyone associates it with Nazism,” he says. “And not just the vast majority of citizens who are opposed to racism, but also neo-Nazi movements who continue to use it today as a symbol of hatred directed at various groups.”
When asked about Fishman’s letter, Wyszynski said it was irrelevant, as he does not live in the area. “We all know the story of Hitler and the Jews,” she says. “Our meeting was not about that. Our meeting was for street residents only.”
Residents in favour of changing the name agree with Fishman that this issue goes beyond a street name in a small town. “Aidan’s letter perfectly captured our stance,” says Horton. “This issue is larger than the street, as evidenced by the wide media attention and public input.”
On December 20, Puslinch Council will vote on whether to keep or change the street name. Ontario’s Municipal Act gives the township the right to change the names of private roads, but local politicians are concerned about the precedent their decision could set in terms of government interference in the operations of private business. “If this was a public road, we would not be having this discussion,” says Dennis Lever, mayor of Puslinch.
Swastika Trail residents who advocate renaming are taking the opportunity to bolster their argument. One woman who lives on the street (along with her husband) spent $310 to file an application to Service Ontario for a vanity plate featuring the word “swastika.” “We figured that this will be a good indicator as to how the government officially feels about this word,” she says.
On November 28, the couple received a letter from Service Ontario rejecting their application, as the word met the criteria for human rights discrimination. They were directed to the website for more information and promptly offered a refund for the application fee.
“A street sign is a public place,” she says. “If the government says it’s a human rights violation on a licence plate, it’s also a human rights violation on a driver’s licence, a mailing address, and obviously on a street sign.”
Shannon McDermott is a 2018 Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.