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Waterloo Memorial Pioneer Tower

Updated on June 14, 2017

Today we visited the Waterloo Pioneer Memorial Tower in Kitchener, ON. This is a beautiful site commemorating the first settlers to move to the Kitchener Waterloo area in the year 1800. The site is right on the edge of the Grand River and part of the Grand River Trail which extends the length of the Grand River in Ontario. While the site itself was beautiful and we got a lot of gorgeous pictures what really interested me is the history of why the tower was built in 1925. The city of Kitchener was a much different place 125 years after the first settlers came to the area and built the first farms in 1800. Why did they decide to commemorate them then? The true storey casts a sad reflection on Canadian history. It’s a story of fear, nationalism and a people determined to define what Canadian is.

What’s in a name? The city of Kitchener hasn’t always been called such. The pioneers who came in the early 1800’s and tamed the land came from Pennsylvania but they had their roots in Germany and as such in 1856 they officially named their new home Berlin as a tribute to their heritage. Berlin grew to a city of prominence in the area. With a strong manufacturing base the region created many products. They proudly stamped into these products “Made in Berlin Canada”. Berliners were proud of their German heritage. 80% of children in public school took German as an optional course. They never thought that they would have to defend their loyalty to their new home. Everything changed in 1916 when WW1 started, anti-German rhetoric and distrust of German heritage led to the city turning away from its German roots. The Berlin School Board banned the teaching of German in the public schools and the Berlin Board of Trade suggested the name of the City be changed for patriotic reasons. A referendum was put in place for May 1916 to determine if the city would change its name. Even the German language newspapers of the area stressed that it was more important to be civil and to show that the German populace was loyal to their new home whatever the cost to their heritage. People who opposed the idea of a name change were labeled aliens and traitors. The months leading up to the referendum were filled with violence, riots and intimidation. In an address to the residents of the city, Sergeant Major Granville Poyser Blood of the 118th Battalion famously stated "Be British. Do your duty or be despised...Be British or be damned".

I often hear from people how we should all speak English and follow English ways because this country was built by the English. In the case of Berlin, Canada that was not the case. For over 100 years German people felled the trees, German people ploughed the fields. Only the natives who had been there before them could lay a stronger claim to the land and traditions to the area but these proud German people and proud Canadians decided on September 1st 1916 to change the name of their city to Kitchener an English name. The war ended two years later. However we know that this was not the end of wars with Germany and if the presence of nationalism was so strong in 1916 we can only imagine how bad it could have been in 1943. In 1925 the Waterloo County Pioneers Memorial Association built the tower to honour the Pioneers who built the first farms in the Waterloo area so that the history of area would not be lost. Today Kitchener is again proud of its German Heritage which is celebrated every year with a large Octoberfest festival.

What do you think?

Do you think it was right for Canadians to push the name change onto the citizens of Berlin Canada?

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