Winnipeg City Hall recently proclaimed that Bishop Grandin Boulevard, Bishop Grandin Trail, and Grandin Street will be renamed, respectively, Abinojii Mikanah (Ojibway for ‘A Children’s Way’), Awisasak Meskanow (Cree for ‘A Children’s Way’), and Taapeewin Way (Michif for ‘Truth’).
Mayor Scott Gillingham said that it took courage on the part of city councilors to forge ahead with revising these names because there is considerable public hostility to the gesture. Gillingham regards the name changes as the morally correct thing to do and therefore worth foisting on the public even if they disagree. The vote was unanimous..
This decision did not take courage. Quite the opposite, it took fear; the fear of being called a racist by Indigenous people.
If changing the names is so unpopular, why would the city council fear losing their seats? Because in municipal elections here, only about a third of eligible voters cast ballots. Among that third, there is a major bloc of activists. To win a ward, a candidate must gain the support of this bloc and that means supporting, if not agreeing, with their agendas which can be termed, ‘Progressive.’ The two primary items in the Progressive agenda are climate change and Reconciliation.
Climate change activism in Winnipeg elections manifests as lobbying for more bike lanes. I doubt these activists seriously think bike lanes in a city of six month-long winters do anything to combat climate change except to harass car-owners and hobble businesses that rely on customers driving to their storefronts.
Reconciliation is a much larger and more impassioned activist cause. As a policy, reconciliation is more sentimental than strategic. No one is really sure what it means but a lot of political value is attached to it. In Winnipeg, the theme of reconciliation dominates social activism. Because reconciliation is not clearly defined, it results in a policy vacuum. Politicians think something must be done about Reconciliation because some people say that something needs to be done. City Hall takes its cues on what can be done from activists on their staff, in media, in academia, and in the Indigenous community.
When the City saw fit in the late 1970s to commemorate Bishop Grandin by naming roadways after him, there was no controversy. He truly was an outstanding person. It is only in recent years with the consolidation of narratives about the Indian Residential Schools as one of genocide that Bishop Grandin has been labeled as an architect of genocide.’ Brian Giesbrecht has written recently on the actual legacy of Bishop Grandin.
Remodeled as the equivalent of Himmler, the name of ‘Bishop Grandin’ appearing anywhere is said to be re-traumatizing to Indian Residential School Survivors. A Progressive city cannot be seen as valorizing a person who played a role in the development of Catholic-run Indian Residential Schools.
It is not clear if any former IRS students were triggered by seeing ‘Bishop Grandin’ on a signpost. In fact, it would be infantilizing to suppose that former students would be harmed by seeing a name they have seen for the past forty years.
What this shows is how much the view of Aboriginal people as victims has become institutionalized.
There is also a morbid subtext to ‘A Children’s Way’. This name is to remind the public of children lying in unmarked graves who never made it home from residential schools.. There is no evidence whatsoever that any child was murdered at a IRS.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there are, in fact, unmarked graves, but they were most often in overgrown cemeteries and over time the wooden markers deteriorated.
Challenging this assumption, will result in a barrage of condemnation from the activists who now enjoy a monopoly in the civic discourse.
Activists who only want to hear one perspective and civic politicians who pay attention to those activists results in the activist minority ruling the apathetic majority. The most consistent excuse I hear from my non-voting friends is: ‘Why should I bother voting because politicians are all the same anyway.’ It’s cynicalwhen politicians toe the line even when they have reasonable concerns about what this name change will mean to businesses on Bishop Grandin.
Of course, time will tell how the public reacts. I suspect that the public will continue to refer to the streets as ‘Bishop Grandin’. The real losers will be the businesses on Bishop Grandin who will have their geographic recognition wiped out. People will not be able to find their businesses. You cannot Google what you cannot spell.
Are we being asked to assimilate with Indigenous peoples and if so, are we being repaid in our own coin? The residential schools are largely accused of practicing ‘forced assimilation’ in an intentional allusion to Article II(e) of the UN Convention on genocide. The argument that assimilation is genocidal is risible on two counts. One, assimilating someone presupposes their continued physical existence. Secondly, genocide typically requires dehumanizing the target group; making someone more like you humanizes that person to you. While some of the residential schools may have sought cultural assimilation, by and large the schools sought the civil assimilation of Indians. In Bishop Grandin’s time, the schools were seen as a progressive response to the policy of benign segregation that had characterized North American Indian policy since 1763.
Unfortunately, in the paucity of permissible discourse on residential schools, almost no distinction is made between cultural and civil assimilation. Cultural assimilation is what activists usually condemn. Since the schools were denominational, a certain amount of cultural assimilation already occurred because the students’ families had previously adopted the various denominations of Christian faith which determined which school their children could attend. If the residential schools were a genocide, many parents of students were complicit; an inconvenient implication lost in the haste to accuse.
Civil assimilation is what most of us would understand as social integration: everyone has the same rights, everyone is equal before the courts, everyone is free to make their own way in society. The official policy of multiculturalism that has existed in Canada for decades now is practicable, in part, because of the ability and willingness of diverse people to get along. People choosing to get along together and being able to is civil assimilation. But there has to be a core society to assimilate to and were Canada anything less than an egalitarian liberal democracy, multiculturalism could not have succeeded here as much as it has.
Changing the name of ‘Bishop Grandin’ to tongue-twisting words from obscure languages is more like civil dissimulation. Indigenous cultures are given prominence in an ostensibly multicultural society that stresses their exception to multicultural expectations. The difference between the way ‘Winnipeg’ was chosen and how ‘Abinojii Mikanah‘ was chosen is that early settlers adopted an existing common Cree name for the locale whereas choosing these replacement names is a self-conscious effort to perform acts of Reconciliation that say less about how Indigenous people perceive society and more about how civic politicians see Indigenous people. That is, as a child-like people for whom the nanny state must make special provisions.
Michael Melanson is a tradesperson and writer living in Winnipeg.
Related – Frontier poll – March 2023- What do you think of cancelling Bishop Grandin?