The issue of renaming Ha Ling Peak was controversial and divisive, yet culturally important, addressed concerns of racial bias and brought to the forefront Canmore and the Bow Valley’s history and future.
The issue of racial bias concerning then-Chinaman’s Peak arose in the mid-1990s, with a push to have the feature re-named. That period of time is framed in the thought provoking and powerful Ha Ling Peak, by Sticks & Stones Communications, which airs on CBC, Saturday (Aug. 18) at 7 p.m. mountain time as part of the national broadcaster’s Absolutely Canadian television series.
Ha Ling Peak examines historical details, murky as they are, of the Chinese cook who climbed the peak now named after him, Canmore’s mining history, the effect of the 1988 Olympics and current Stoney Nakoda efforts to rename Tunnel Mountain.
Much of Ha Ling Peak is centred upon former valley schoolteacher Roger Mah Poy, who took up the cause of having the name Chinaman’s Peak removed, and took the brunt of much of the negativity of those who opposed the name change. Indeed, it is an emotional Mah Poy who provides the most powerful moments in the documentary as he recounts his feelings of racial bias in regard to the former peak’s name.
Also included are former Outlook founder and then-Canmore Leader editor Carol Picard, former mayor Ron Casey, former mine manager Gerry Stephenson, historian Bob Sanford and author Jerry Auld, among others.
Ha Ling Peak is based on an idea by executive producer Scott Francis Winder, with writer Jordan Bloemen, cinematographer/producer Bryce Zimmerman and director/editor Colin Waugh bringing the project to life on the screen.
“He (Scott) had spent a lot of time in that region hiking and being involved in activities there and was aware of the name Ha Ling Peak and the fact it had once been called Chinaman’s Peak and the folk story of that,” said Zimmerman.
As the documentary story goes, a Chinese cook named Ha Ling, who worked for the railway, or the mines, had a $50 bet that he could climb the peak which looms over Canmore in 10 hours, or in a work shift. He carried with him a red flag, or scarf, which he placed at the top.
From below, though, nobody had seen him at the top. Later, another group made its way to the summit and found the flag or scarf he left there. At the time, the Medicine Hat News reported on the event.
The development process for the documentary began in December of 2017, was green lit in January of 2018, pre-production began in March and filming went to the end of May. Post production was recently completed and the final product was handed off to CBC.
Bloemen and Katherine Green researched the story, visited Canmore and tracked down people to interview for the story.
“They talked to the Alpine Club of Canada and other people in that region. In a town like Canmore, there are people with intimate knowledge and the history and once you had one name, it was like, ‘Oh, you should talk to Carol Picard or you should talk to Bob Sanford,” said Zimmerman.
On working with CBC, Zimmerman said, “In taking on these types of projects with tax credits and everything, you really do need a broadcaster or someone to bring a pedigree to allow you to make these things. We were super fortunate that CBC reached out to us because they liked our past work.”
Background for the documentary was provided by Sanford, Picard and Casey among others, and there was background on Canmore’s history as a coalmining town, and the legacy of the Olympic Games. New and old video footage is spliced into the work and the importance of place, names and naming is delved into.
“There was a sense that we should define that name,” said Sanford in the documentary, adding Jon Whyte had pointed out that “here was a remarkable Chinese local who climbed the mountain and the name should be his. But it took more than 30 years to happen.”
The most powerful moments in the documentary are Mah Poy’s, who says “I had known about the peak and there was always a sense of shame.”
When Mah Poy heard of a Calgarian who wanted to have the peak’s name changed, “I said I live in the community. I think I should have a voice in the changing of this name.
“Especially when I looked at my kids. I said ‘I want them to grow up in a world where it shouldn’t matter the racial background.’ “
At the time, Picard was the Leader editor and she points out the difficulty of seeing people she respected speaking against a name change. At the same time, the Leader was printing extra pages of letters to the editor to allow residents to weigh in.
Casey said a name change, along with development pressures of the day, meant some Canmorites, “felt you lost control of your community and lost control of this place. If they’re going to start changing the names of mountains, what are they going to do next?”
Being of Chinese descent, Mah Poy points out in the documentary that, “Chinaman was used to degrade the Chinese people at the time by not using their given names … In terms of labour for the mines in Canmore, they were simply known as Chinaman 1 or Chinaman 2 and their sense of humanness was taken away from them.
“For me, personally, Chinaman was always used in a derogatory taunt.”
At one point, Mah Poy breaks down on camera, removes his glasses and wipes tears from his eyes as he speaks of how the name was so racially charged, yet so commonly used.
“So for this to continue into the 20th century, I was not going to allow that,” he said. “The only way to do it was through education. There was the opportunity to embrace something more powerful than degrading another human being.”
“Now, in the 21st century, everyone knows Ha Ling,” he said, adding he is heartened to know that there are now children and tourists who know the mountain only as Ha Ling Peak.
Even after the official name change, though, Mah Poy admits to being somewhat ambivalent about the effort as he realizes Stoney Nakoda also have a name and story for the peak which reaches back into time.
Sanford points out in the documentary that, “The story of Ha Ling is really worth examining. Remember, these landscapes were well named by Indigenous people before we came along and named them. We can talk to elders and find out those names and find out what places meant to people.”
In respect to Stoney Nakoda history, William Snow related a story of the last Nakoda who had a wish that when he died he wanted to live in Kananaskis for all time.
“When he was granted a wish by the creator to live forever, he was turned into a stone. That stone is Ha Ling Peak. It sort of looks like someone sitting with legs crossed and looking to the north; that’s our understanding of it.”
“When we approached this whole thing, we weren’t necessarily trying to tell one specific story about the peak, we’re more interested in everyone’s approach to it and how we can work together to actually improve these kind of dynamics,” said Zimmerman.
“Because when these arguments get bitter and heated and polarized, it becomes difficult to empathize and understand each other. I think it’s good to showcase everyone’s opinion about it, but also what they’ve learned over time.
“To see someone like Roger break down and really show the depth of his emotional connection to that, and how hard it was for him, it’s quite powerful.
“There’s lots of controversy around naming currently and we’re trying to bring people together, rather than divide them, and I think there’s a lot of underlying issues that needs to be reconciled before people can figure out what things should be called.
“Our approach is to teach, rather than tell.
“I think the most surprising thing was how deep this story goes and how the tendrils of it connect into all these other names and all these other things and there’s the fact that you can’t really separate this one mountain in this one situation from the broader experience we all go through.
“It really makes you think deeply of the name of everything around you. It feels like someone pulled the wool off your eyes.”