Winnipeg City Council needs to know renaming streets will not advance Indigenous reconciliation and it will deny Winnipeggers a chance for a learning experience about the residential schools legacy.
A final motion goes to city council on March 23. The motion aims to rename streets named after Bishop Vital Justin Grandin. Grandin was a Roman Catholic priest known for his impassioned defence of French language rights in the West as well as being a strong supporter of Metis rights. He also defended the residential schools system.
In today’s cultural climate, there is a rush to remove every single reference to residential schools. Ryerson University in Toronto was renamed for this reason.
First Nations people have a right to be emotional and have strong opinions about this.
The problem is these kinds of climates are not very conducive to the best decisions.
There is another way forward if city councillors are interested in compromise and approach this in a learning and creative spirit.
Back in 2021, Probe Research asked Winnipeggers how they felt about removing Grandin’s name from city streets. A majority supported the move although this poll was taken after the discovery of what was thought to be mass graves in Kamloops, British Columbia. There was a lot of anger and resentment in the air even though mass graves have not been found.
Despite the majority, a quarter of respondents preferred a middle ground – they preferred to keep the name but also educate people about the role of Grandin in the residential school system. This means councillors were challenged with the option of placing new historical plaques or other markers to inform the public.
This is the best course because it involves informing Winnipeggers about Grandin’s historic role in Manitoba’s history but provides the full picture. Indigenous people get to define what reconciliation looks like, but much of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was about telling the full story of Canada’s history – warts and all.
Renaming streets – and pulling down statues – is not about learning or dialogue or bringing people together. It is the opposite as it shuts down discussion.
When Ontario elementary schools were removing Sir John A. Macdonald from their walls, Murray Sinclair, former senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, waded into the debate, stressing the urge to rename in the name of Indigenous reconciliation was misguided.
“It is not about taking off names off buildings, it is about whether we can find a way to put Indigenous names on buildings,” Sinclair said in an interview in 2017.
“The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that is counterproductive to … reconciliation because it almost smacks of revenge or smacks of acts of anger, but in reality, what we are trying to do, is we are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”
The solution, he urged, was to honour and elevate more Indigenous heroes, not remove historical figures with tainted legacies. Winnipeg has already done an excellent job on honouring and promoting Indigenous figures in its public art murals and in monuments.
Winnipeg City Council should consider the words of Sinclair and adopt a middle course that retains the name and provides the full picture of his legacy to Winnipeggers at the same time. City council must choose the path of learning over anger and fear.
Joseph Quesnel, who is Metis, is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org