The name ‘Slave’ Lake: help or hindrance?

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Several years ago, The Leader asked some people who didn’t grow up in Slave Lake about their first impressions of the place, or more specifically the name itself. We published some of the results of that survey about a year ago.

One reason for asking the question was because it had been suggested – more than – once, that having ‘Slave’ in the name of the town was bad for business, specifically the tourism business. This has come up again recently with people who are interested in promoting visits to the area, so we thought we’d run the story again – slightly amended – since it’s a conversation that continues.

When the notion of finding a new name for Slave Lake was raised, in a magazine article by a regional tourism promoter about a dozen years ago, there was quite an indignant reaction from some people in town. ‘Who does he think he is!’ and that sort of thing.

That’s understandable, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind. The town’s name has been changed before. It was Sawridge until 1923. Apparently the ‘town fathers’ of the day thought that was too obscure and grabbed ‘Slave Lake’ the minute it became available. That was because the town now known as Grouard had decided it didn’t want to be called Lesser Slave Lake anymore. So Charlie Schurter (possibly among others), who was a big promoter of the area and wanted to upgrade its image, decided ‘Slave Lake’ would be an improvement over Sawridge. And here we are.

The idea for the article arose after a group from Rocky Mountain House visited Slave Lake as part of a project whereby municipal reps visited and swapped first impressions on each others’ communities. The Rocky folks were surprised by Slave Lake, they reported, because it was so different than what they had expected. What had they expected? A ‘rustic’ northern lumber and oil town with little in the way of amenities? Something a lot further from Edmonton? Why did they have this impression? Could the name have had something to do with it? We thought we’d ask other people what they had expected and how the reality may have differed.

Some of the responses dealt with the name alone. Others had more to do with their impressions of the community on first encounter. In most cases in the original survey, the people who responded were Albertans. In this updated version we’ve got a first impressions response from somebody from much further away.

One person told us the name ‘Slave Lake gave him a negative impression. He would never have stopped here and would be in favour of changing the name.

Former Leader reporter Caezer Ng said he had no preconceptions about the name or the community, but “a lot of my friends (he’s from Edmonton) thought I was moving to the Northwest Territories.”
Another former Leader reporter said: “I had this vision of Aboriginal slaves. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go to Edmonton for everything.’

As it turned out, “I was awed by the Cornerstone development. I wasn’t expecting that in a town this size.”

Another person: “When we first moved to Slave Lake – I told my husband, ‘Five years and then we are out of here!’ I was a city girl at heart and I did not know that I would come to love it so much!”

And another: “I was surprised. I didn’t think that such beautiful and vastly different surroundings were contained in Alberta not that far from where I grew up (about five hours away). The forest, the lakes, the beach, the walking trails … well, this is the kind of place that our family would go to on holidays. How fortunate people were to live there! I still run into people around the province who come to Slave Lake for summer holidays and I feel even more privileged to live here all the time.”

One more: “My first impressions of the town, a much different and smaller place in 1988 than now, were probably typical of any city boy…dear lord, what have I gotten myself into!? But with a brand new baby, and no money to relocate immediately, my wife and I committed ourselves to finish the school year and perhaps one more after that. Then, we were outta here! That was 26 years ago and we are still here and we raised our family here As an historian, I am leery of changing names simply because of the political and cultural sensitivities and flavours of the present. Once people know the origin of the name, they often don’t feel quite as hostile or offended. But on the other hand, I’m also proudly from Slave Lake and if other people still have a problem with the name, tough.”

Fair enough. Now here’s what the name conjured up for a new resident who came to Slave Lake direct from Africa to serve as a church pastor. He says when he found a job opening in a place called Slave Lake, a couple of thoughts came to mind. One was that it might have been on a ‘slave route,’ in the days of the slave trade. The other was that it might have got its name from the punishment of slaves for rebellious behaviour. He thought it might have been associated with the drowning of slaves.

As for the reality versus the expectations, he says he expected a bigger and more bustling place.

“We were expecting a hyper town with everyone seemingly rushing or appear(ing) to be late. Instead what we saw and continue to see is the well-settled community; people are not (in) a rush. People can still nod their heads, smile at you sometimes or sometimes greet you on the trails. In the corridors people hold doors for each other. There is a communal aspect of living and respect.

“We have come to love the people,” he goes on to say. “They are welcoming and ready to help and make one’s stay great and nice.”

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