Vancouver Island park gets modern-day fact check of its namesake

Vancouver Island is known for its beautiful parks and green spaces, among them Saanich’s Panama Flats. But new archival research on how the park got its name suggests its origin story isn’t true. 

Suzanne Hervieux, an archives specialist with the District of Saanich, says the common story goes that there was an English man named McDonald who was employed as chief engineer during the construction of the Panama Canal.

“Then around 1904, he is said to have come to Saanich and invested some money in the purchase of 1,200 hectares of land in this area of Panama Flats,” Hervieux told host Rohit Joseph on All Points West. 

“And seeing the resemblance to the jungles of Central America, he gave it its name.”

Except, Hervieux says, there’s almost no supporting evidence for the story.

“As soon as I started researching, we found out that maybe he wasn’t here. I wasn’t actually able to find any record of a Mr. McDonald owning land in this area in the early 1900s at all.”

Skating on the frozen floodplain between 1913-1923. (Submitted by Saanich Archives)

Hervieux says the first record she could find of the story was a newspaper article from the 1980s. 

“We don’t know who came up with [the story] or where it originated,” she said. 

One theory, she says, was that the construction of the Panama Canal — an incredibly difficult project and engineering feat — was a major news story during the early 20th century. 

“Anyone could have seen the connection between the swampy lands of Saanich and the swampy lands of Panama without having visited.”

The land around the Panama Flats — which only became parkland in 2011 — was often used for agriculture during European settlement. 

Hervieux is less sure of its pre-contact history, although the area falls within the traditional territory of the Esquimalt First Nation.

“One of the things about working for a municipal archives that means that most of our records are grounded in the municipality and consist of records created by and for the European settlers,” she said. “But this area is very fertile land and absolutely would have been utilized going very far back.”

She hopes the story of the Panama Flats name inspires people to think critically about the stories behind other place names.

“Maybe next time we come across one, think critically about it, and think about the people who were in this space before us and to kind of recognize that shared history.”

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