B.C. is considering a name change for the mountain named for French war criminal Philippe Pétain

Petain Glacier Falls (Credit: Flickr/Shane Jost)

July 5, 2022: Philippe Pétain‘s name is now being rescinded from sites in British Columbia, eight months after this story was published by The CJN.

British Columbia is mulling whether to drop the name of Vichy France’s leader from the names of a mountain, creek and glacier that straddle the border with Alberta. 

Last year, the B.C. Geographical Society received a request from a “concerned citizen” to rescind the names of Mount Pétain, Pétain Creek and Pétain Glacier, which compose the Pétain Basin, according to the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (BCGNO), which oversees the Geographical Society. 

In September 2019, the Government of Alberta dropped the names from its side of the border. They were also removed from a federal database.

The landmarks are named after Henri Philippe Pétain, who was at one time regarded as a war hero for his role as a victorious French general in the First World War, leading the French to victory at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. 

But during the Second World War, Pétain became leader of the Nazi puppet regime in Vichy France, deporting 76,000 Jews to death camps, just 2,500 of whom survived. After the war, he was convicted of treason and imprisoned for the rest of his life, which ended in 1951. 

The mountain was named after Pétain in 1918. 

Nico Slobinsky, a senior director with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, says he finds it baffling that anyone would oppose rescinding the name of a convicted Nazi collaborator. 

“Pétain belongs to the books of history, no other recognition should be bestowed on him,” Slobinsky said in an email. 

The Geographical Society needs to go through a lengthy consultation process prior to rescinding the names of geographical locations, which is expected to wrap up at the end of 2021. A separate process is required to rename the sites.

“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 B.C. ministry noted in an email. 

However, site names are also “fundamental to communication on the land and have safety and navigation implications,” so it’s important to reach a broad consensus before rescinding names, the ministry added. 

If the names are dropped, “references to each of these features will likely be in relation to nearby named features or by GPS coordinates, as needed,” until there’s a new name selected. 

As part of the consultation process, the B.C. government sought approval for rescinding the name from the Regional District of East Kootenay, where the sites are located. 

At an Oct. 8 board meeting, the RDEK board of directors voted 11 to 4 in favour of rescinding the names of the three sites. 

One of the directors who voted no, Mike Sosnowski, told The CJN that the push to rescind the names of the landmarks is an example of “cancel culture” and “destroying history.”  

“I know [Pétain] must have been a bad guy in the end, but whatever, we learn from history,” said Sosnowski. 

“The atrocities that happened to the Jewish people, and the atrocities that happen to people all of the time all over the world, are terrible … You take the name away from the mountain, in 10 years, they won’t know he was a bad guy.”

Another nay vote, Sparwood Mayor and former MP David Wilks, told CBC Radio that Pétain made “grave errors [but] some would say that he was looking out for the best interests of France.” 

In his own Nov. 4 interview with CBC, Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver CEO Ezra Shanken said Wilks’s “shocking” remarks underscore the need for further Holocaust education. 

“There’s clearly a population he’s speaking for that doesn’t understand that there’s no justification for war crimes,” Shanken said. 

“France itself said that his behaviour was beyond the pale, that it does wipe away all of the things he did before… There’s no grey area here.” 

The rescinding of Pétain’s name is a “no-brainer” that exists separately from the broader “debate around removal of monuments,” he added. 

In Quebec, there is a rural township and a lake named after Pétain.