As you probably know, the city of Kitchener was originally named Berlin, and the area has a strong German heritage to this day. However, when the First World War began and the evil doings of the Hun were being spread as propaganda, this German image became a little… uncomfortable. (A bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I in Victoria Park in Kitchener was at one point thrown into a lake, and later stolen for good. It’s important to note here that before the war, German culture was seen by many Canadians as admirable and significant – wealthy Canadians sometimes sent their children to Germany to finish their education. Once the war began though, love for Germany and love for Britain were seen as incompatible. Berlin, a proudly German-Canadian town, was therefore thrown into a deeply ironic and delicate position.)
People soon felt that Berlin’s name should be changed, but it wasn’t just erstwhile Berliners who were looking for a rebranding – Kingston city council was adamant that the name change be immediate and permanent. They sent the following petition to Prime Minister Robert Borden in January 1917, several months after Berlin’s name had been changed to Kitchener on 1 September 1916. If you read through, what it’s huffing about is that some people were showing “disloyalty” by continuing to send mail with the name Berlin instead of Kitchener. Kingston city council, who for some reason felt they had a say in this matter, wanted the government to force the Postmaster-General to rescind his proclamation that the name Berlin was still an acceptable address. The petition is as follows:
Although in hindsight the petition seems a little ridiculous, it’s important to remember that public sentiment of this sort was high at the time. In the midst of the most terrible war experienced in generations, people got a little (okay, a lot) paranoid. Still, I find it odd that Kingston, which is nowhere near Kitchener, was so caught up in the name change issue that it sent in this petition to the Prime Minister. Who knows what they were thinking? Did other cities do the same?
Now – this is a little off-topic for local history, but Kitchener wasn’t the only name option open to ex-Berliners. There was a long list of possibilities, including some really strange and interesting ones, a few of which I can’t help sharing:
Khaki – This would have gotten old fast.
Brief – Too many underwear joke possibilities.
Cosmos – Why?
Engada – Obviously a combination of England + Canada, this one actually has a nice ring to it. These combo names seem to have been popular.
Uranus – Perhaps submitted by the same person as “Cosmos,” this option was not chosen, to the disappointment of seven-year-olds everywhere.
Windigo – Uh, did they not know what the Windigo is?
Ontario – ????
Imperator – Clearly the best choice.
Click here for the full list. Unfortunately, the names were narrowed down to a fairly boring short list and Kitchener was eventually chosen (Lord Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, died when HMS Hampshire hit a German mine on 5 June 1916). However, I remember reading an article once on this subject that stated the vast majority of people didn’t even turn out to vote on the name change, so Kitchener was, statistically speaking, a minority choice. Sometimes I wonder whether the day will come when people file petitions to change the name back to Berlin – or has that already happened? Anyway, sorry for the short post this week, but hope you enjoyed it!