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What’s in a Name? Episode One of Stories of the Swamp Ward

You might be here because you already heard this podcast episode, but if not, here it is!

I’m not sure when I first heard the term “Swamp Ward.” But in 2002 I was playing music with some neighbours, and we actually got a gig, and we needed a name, and somehow we hit on “Swamp Ward Orchestra.” That was a mistake in various ways… for one thing, people thought it was a Cajun band, when in fact we were doing Québecois and French cabaret music —which in any case is not music many people in this Kingston neighbourhood would have identified as theirs. I’m kind of embarrassed at how we claimed the name when we really didn’t know what it referred to. I’d only lived in the neighbourhood for five years. Anyway, we got stuck with it. And it was a pretty good band! We don’t play much any more, but we did record a couple of CDs and we played folk festivals across the country.

Meanwhile, life went on, and I started learning about the neighbourhood. Jamie Swift and I decided to do a historical walking tour of the area around Skeleton Park in 2007, and in order to do that we interviewed some people and studied up in the archives. In 2015, I decided to design and undertake a large-scale oral and community history project in the area as part of my research responsibilities at Queen’s, and hence was born the Swamp Ward and Inner Harbour History Project. I used the name “Swamp Ward” because it seemed to be in general use, and yet to be rooted in the past. But I still didn’t know what it meant. So the project’s first questions included, “what is the Swamp Ward? where are its boundaries? why is it called that? what does the name mean to people?” We didn’t always ask these questions directly in our interviews, but we paid close attention to what terms people used and how they used them.

As you’ll hear in the documentary, there isn’t actually a consensus on any of the questions! And in a way I think that is delightful, and interesting, because we see that people of different generations experienced the place differently, and therefore have a different relation to the name. People even pronounce the name differently — some of those who grew up in the 30s and 40s call it “Swamp WARD,” whereas most people say “SWAMP ward.” Those who grew up in the area in the 70s and 80s and 90s don’t use the term at all, but rather they say “North of Princess.” In general terms, I would say that our interviews (so far numbering 67) suggest that as the neighbourhood thrived economically, its name was experienced as affirmative, and insofar as it didn’t (the 70s and 80s were tough), its name was experienced as pejorative. You could also say that if a resident used the name it was positive, but if an outsider did, particularly somebody from south of Princess Street, it was likely pejorative. All this comes out in the audio, as you have heard. Nowadays, people like me, newcomers, seem to have latched onto the name “Swamp Ward,” and Peter Blaney may be quite right when he sneers a bit at that. We take up the old name just as we participate in changing the neighbourhood. A little too much like developers who raze all the trees to build houses and call the street “Oak Vista Drive”? But I suppose that is partly why I think it’s important to learn about the neighbourhood’s history — so that we don’t caricature it or just use it as some sort of “brand” (or band name!).

So, what about the boundary question? Swamp Ward hasn’t been on any map. Old maps of electoral boundaries show instead Cataraqui Ward and St. Lawrence Ward. You can think of the Swamp Ward as those wards together, leaving out the part of St. Lawrence Ward west of Division Street. That’s broadly how I have defined it for my project. But the heart of the Swamp Ward is definitely down near the Inner Harbour, which is to say, near the swamps. East of Rideau Street really was swamp until it was filled in by and for industry. Pockets of it remained swamp, as you’ll hear in Episode 3. Anything west of Montreal Street is uphill, so not really part of that area within sight of the water, and within earshot and smell of the Inner Harbour industries. My research suggests that this neighbourhood is not ultimately defined by its boundaries but by its nodes of attachment and connection, that you will hear more about in subsequent episodes.

Nonetheless, to show a little sympathy with all those who have asked, I asked the talented Francine Berish to go ahead and put Swamp Ward onto a map — for the very first time! I encouraged her to try and represent the neighbourhood as centred down by the harbour, and bounded on the south by Queen Street, but having porous borders in various directions west and north. I’m sure this will produce discussion and comment. It’s a start. Did we get it right?

— Laura Murray