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New West’s new civic facility’s name aims to invoke fun, honour First Peoples

təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre chosen as name of New Westminster’s new facility at a time of Indigenous language revival.

From the name on the building to the public art that greets visitors at the front entrance, təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre aims to contribute to the City of New Westminster’s reconciliation efforts.

təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre opened its community centre spaces on April 29. Its aquatics facilities will open May 14 and an official grand opening of the entire facility is on June 1.

Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larrabee acknowledged Sesmelot (Fern Gabriel) of Kwantlen First Nation, Ernie Cardinal (Indigenous cultural liaison advisor with the Spirit of the Children’s Society), and Anneliese Von Kanel and her son Kaimana Nahanee’s contributions to the opening ceremony, which included a blessing, song and drumming.

təməsew̓txʷ means “sea otter house” in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the Down River language of local First Nations. It was chosen because of the playfulness, joyfulness, and family-oriented nature of the sea otter, which reflects the key themes that emerged during community engagement sessions.

“When I first started coming to New West 30, 40 years ago and said the name Qayqayt, people didn't know how to say it; now it just rolls off their tongues,” Larrabee said at Monday’s ceremony.  “The school district named a new school Skwo:wech, and now you all can say Skwo:wech. So, before you know it, you'll be going təməsew̓txʷ – təməsew̓txʷ Aquatics and Community Centre. And you'll be proud because you will know that it was named by First Peoples, by the peoples that were here many, many, many, many thousands of years ago. So, I thank you all for being here today.”

Early in the process of planning for a new aquatics and community centre, a naming committee considered names for the new facility.

At a June 2021 city council meeting, Larrabee, a member of the naming advisory panel, announced the city’s new facility would be named təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre, a hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ word for “Sea Otter House.”

According to the city, təməsew̓txʷ is a combination of two words: “təməs” which means sea otter; and “ew̓txʷ” which means house. If you’re wondering how to say it, you can hear how it’s pronounced in this short video.

The naming advisory panel’s members included representatives from the Spirit of the Children Society and the Qayqayt, q̓ʷa:̩n̓ƛən̓ (Kwantlen First Nation), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), and Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation).

“The name that the panel has chosen represents the spirit of playfulness, joyfulness and relates to the fun, laughter and happiness that the residents will find at the new aquatic community centre,” Larrabee said when announcing the name. “It is the name of a mammal that can be seen on the Fraser River.”

At Monday’s opening, Larrabee recounted how she had thought a sea otter would be appropriate name for the facility because it conveys fun. She credited Sesmelot for making it happen.

“When I kind of brought the subject up, people in the committee were drawn to it. But I had no knowledge of how to turn it into a a hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ saying,” she recalled. “So, it was Sesmalot, who is so knowledgeable about our language, that she named it təməsew̓txʷ. It's so appropriate.”

The Indigenous name, selected after a process that lasted almost two years, was intended to be a meaningful way to help the city on some of its goals for reconciliation.

"Having the facility name be in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ provides an opportunity for us all to be language learners in a time of Indigenous language revival and for communities and families to come together around shared values of learning, physical activity, inclusivity and joy,” noted the naming advisory panel in a 2021 press release. “təməs is a playful and social creature reflecting some of the important stories that we heard from New Westminster residents.”

Mayor Patrick Johnstone said the name of the facility is important, largely because of the way it came about – a community-led conversation that centred Indigenous people and the language indigenous to these lands.

“At the blessing of the opening, and with the artwork in the main plaza, we re able to engage the community in a conversation about the deeper history of this place, about the water and the river that define our city,” he said. “And yet, the name is playful and fun, like the playful otter it invokes.”

The next opening at təməsew̓txʷ Aquatic and Community Centre is for a public art installation by James Harry, a Vancouver-based Coast Salish artist from the Squamish Nation. Miyiwts – Water's Edge, a 16-foot-tall mirror polished stainless steel sculpture located in the plaza at the main entrance to the facility, will be officially unveiled on Wednesday, May 8 from 12 to 2 p.m.