By Darren Lum
What’s in a name?
Everything and nothing, apparently, when it comes to opinions about what to do about Sam Slick Park, following the last Cultural Resource Committee virtual meeting via Zoom on Friday, April 23.
The park that overlooks Head Lake, located across County Road 21 from Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, is named after the fictional character Sam Slick, who was central to a series of popular books, which has come under scrutiny for its racist and misogynistic attitudes, that started with an appearance in the Halifax newspaper, The Novascotian in September 1835 and then with The Clockmaker: the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville. It depicted the life of an American entrepreneur with a penchant for taking advantage of people for financial gain set during the first half of the 1800s. Slick is the creation of Nova Scotian politician, and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton, who was the first chairman of the Canada Land and Emigration Company, which purchased the land upon which the village of Haliburton was founded.
While Slick, who criticized Britain and made disparaging comments about Nova Scotians, possessed unscrupulous characteristic traits, some have said he simply reflected the perspective of the people during the 19th century with racist and misogynistic language.
Mayor Andrea Roberts said she’s read passages featuring the character Sam Slick and recognizes his disreputable characteristics, but isn’t certain about changing the name.
“While I read some of it, I still don’t have a conclusive answer to make that decision that we should not call it Sam Slick Park anymore, so I look to the rest of the committee. I did my research and I’m still confused,” she said.
At the height of the publication’s popularity, Slick was said to have been more popular than its creator, Haliburton.
The series of books were popular for its satirical humour not just in North America, but overseas as well, including parts of Europe. The series was translated and also made available in German.
Committee member Victoria Bingham, who worked as an intern at the Haliburton House website, where Thomas Chandler Haliburton lived in Nova Scotia, said the author’s views weren’t necessarily isolated to his characters. She described Haliburton as an “interesting, colourful character from historical past.”
When you read the Haliburton House website, she said, “the language on their website says he expressed the conservative views of his time and of his elitist upbringing,” she said.
It also states, “In recent decades, Thomas Chandler Haliburton’s long-accepted role as an important figure in Nova Scotia’s history has been the subject of ongoing research and debate into not only his contributions, but also the lives and contributions of those around him.”
Bingham adds this is an issue that is also coming up in theatre, where popular plays seen through a modern 21st century lens are “quite offensive.”
“From my perspective as a new person coming onto the committee it’s one of those things that will crop up over and over again when we deal with people from the past whose behaviour would now be considered quite questionable,” she said.
Committee member Kate Butler, who is also the director at the Haliburton Highlands Museum, said this is an opportunity for education.
“To talk about the fact that we don’t see things the same way anymore. We learned a lot. We’ve grown a lot. Our views in the past, which are certainly not appropriate now and, yeah, I think there is certainly an opportunity for some sort of educational piece to go into that,” she said.
She adds the naming of the park was done at a time based on the correlation between the town name and a well-known author, who has sayings we still use today – with one noted on the plaque: You can’t draw blood from stone.
She said the Rotary Club of Haliburton can be included in this discussion, as they sponsored the park with its purchase of the property for $4,000 in 1960 and then had the park completed in 1964.
Committee member Anna Babluck said there is a responsibility to do something when you know something is wrong.
“You can’t just change the name and sweep it under the rug, but that doesn’t mean you don’t change the name and have some sort of acknowledgement of the history of it and why the name was changed at the site,” she said.
In West Hants, Nova Scotia, they had held a summer festival known as Sam Slick Days from the 1970s until 2008. In the last year the committee responsible for organizing the event used an image depicting a scene from the book’s chapter Slavery from The Clockmaker, which showed a Black man on his knees, crying out to Slick. Public outcry ensued and resulted in discussion about Haliburton’s work and whether the community was celebrating racism. This led to the event’s name change to the Windsor West Hants Summer Fest and then Avon River Days in 2014.
Committee member Jim Blake said he agreed with Bingham and Butler.
“It’s one of those things. When you become aware of something, you can’t just say, well, I don’t know anything about that. It’s, OK. We’re aware of it now we need to deal with it, in some way,” he said. “And we don’t need a lot of complaints to be progressive and move ahead.”
He suggested a sub-committee be created to come up with recommendations for possible changes related to whether there will be a name change and education.
Mayor Roberts said a disclaimer could be added with a sign at the park to say Sam Slick is a character in a fictionalized story.
“Even the name Sam Slick. Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a lot of writers write characters, who are not good people. Does that mean the author is racist? The character is slick. He sells a clock for $40 that cost him $4 or something like that. He’s shady,” she said.
Committee member Laurie Jones didn’t think this suggestion would be enough.
“There is no but. ‘But it’s different here.’ This is a big world we live in and I think that it’s a changing society and, yeah, a disclaimer doesn’t cut it for me right now. I don’t think we can decide to do a disclaimer or anything without taking a position. Or it will keep coming back,” she said.
Shelley Schell recognized resolving what is known to be wrong, but was concerned with eradicating history.
“What is correct and what is culturally appropriate changes as time goes by, and words and language changes go by and its use – their interpretation change. So, for me, I think a qualifier or disclaiming statement would address the issue and it would relay current sensitivity, but not eradicate history. History is history. That is what it was at that time. I’m not sure I feel comfortable with playing a role in what was a reality at that time, whether or not I agree with it to be clear,” she said.
Blake said it’s important to remember that when the 9-1-1 system was implemented in Haliburton County there were road name changes such as how Fred Jones Road used to be called Dover Spring Road.
He believes the sub-committee needs to undertake a full process, which will include research into this to enable the creation of recommendations related to possibly renaming the park, but also identify the historical reference.
Anna Babluck, who is the acting CEO for the Haliburton County Public Library said characters in fiction matter and acknowledged change was needed, but also recognized the importance of preserving history.
‘What we choose to celebrate and portray, even if it’s historically accurate, it matters and it reflects on us and our values, but I agree that history is important as well. I would propose renaming the park, but having a plaque that explains the history. It used to be named this and this is why it’s problematic,” she said.
Bingham suggested this process could include the Rotary Club, and their subsidary groups, including HHSS students, who could research and come up with a name instead of Sam Slick.
The committee finished their discussion with the formation of a sub-committee to come up with recommendations to make to the committee when they meet again in June. The committee will include Anna Babluck, Kate Butler, Ron Evans, and Laurie Jones.