Winnipeg is saying goodbye to Bishop Grandin. His name is about to be erased from street signs, and soon he will be effectively erased from Manitoba’s history.
His crime was being associated with residential schools. For reasons that are purely Canadian any public figure who had any connection residential schools must be forever erased from history.
But before he has completely disappeared from our collective memory, let me write this short description of this remarkable man.
Who was Bishop Grandin?
Vital-Justin Grandin was a Roman Catholic priest who played a major role in the transformation of what was largely a thinly populated wilderness into the vibrant province that we inhabit today.
He was an unlikely hero. Poor health and a speech impediment hindered his career, and he ended up in our cold northwest, where he developed an immediate and long-lasting affinity for indigenous people. In fact he adopted two Indigenous orphans, and during that time he formulated the idea that motivated him for the rest of his life. Simply put, he saw no reason why priests had to be white men. He enthusiastically promoted education, in large part, so that Indigenous men could become priests, and societal leaders.
It needs to be remembered that Roman Catholicism was extremely important in early Manitoba life. And when Grandin arrived in what would become the “postage stamp province” the area was largely Roman Catholic. The dominant Indigenous group, the Ojibway, had emigrated from the Great Lakes area around the same time as the Selkirk Settlers, and had displaced the relatively few Assiniboine who had hunted in the area. The rich Indigenous, Half-breed and Métis cultures flourished. The Protestant “Orange” had yet to arrive.
It was in this fascinating Métis/Indigenous/Selkirk Settler/Half-breed tapestry that Grandin unleashed his amazing energy. Education and Roman Catholicism were his twin passions. He was convinced that education was absolutely necessary if Indigenous and Métis people were to succeed. Edward Cunningham, the first Métis priest in the northwest, was Grandin’s crowning success. Until his poor health stopped him for good, Grandin built, and kept building the structure that became modern Manitoba.
As for residential schools, apparently the reason Grandin’s name is to be expunged permanently from Canadian history books is because he supported residential schools for Indigenous children. That’s the way priests and other leaders were educated at the time. Boarding schools did that. So, he is guilty as charged. But in his defence, Grandin had absolutely no idea that school children would be subjected to abuse 50 or 100 years after he was gone. And Grandin always believed that Indigenous parents should decide whether or not to send their child to a residential school. During Grandin’s time attendance at residential schools was completely up to the Indigenous parents. Compulsory school attendance was not introduced until long after his death.
So, there’s that.
And it is absolutely true that Grandin and Louis Riel despised one another. Grandin thought Riel was a madman, and he was not alone in this assessment.
But, if Grandin’s name is to be erased from history, let’s remember his full name: “Vital-Justin Grandin”. That’s right, St. Vital was named for him. So, to be consistent, St. Vital will have to be renamed as well.
And what about Tache, Des Meurons, Dorchester, Lagimodiere, and a few hundred other historical figures. If we are to judge yesterday’s leaders by today’s standards every one of those names will be problematic. Every man, woman, and child who lived a hundred or more years ago is guilty of thinking and acting like a person of their time, and not as a person of our enlightened time.
We might even have to take a look at names like Chief Peguis. Many tribes practiced polygamy, the buying and selling of wives, slavery, ritual torture, and bloody warfare. If we judge yesterday’s leaders, like Grandin, by the standards of today, should we not judge Indigenous leaders, like Peguis, by the same standards?
The answer is to recognize that Grandin and Peguis were both good men – but, men of their time.
It would be wishful thinking to believe that this renaming frenzy would stop anytime soon. In fact, we are probably just at the beginning of this Orwellian renaming orgy. I note that in Toronto the head of Henry Dundas is now on the chopping block for supporting a gradual end to slavery. Dundas had the misfortune to be alive during the 99% of human history when slavery was practiced. (Nigel Biggar discusses this brilliantly in Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.)
There are many other errors committed by yesterday’s leaders for which they can be posthumously punished. It only takes a little imagination to find reasons to rename almost anything that now bears their names. Come to think of it, Jesus, Moses and Mohammed all – just like Dundas – lived in a time when slavery was practiced, and were complicit at least to some extent in its practice. Should anything with their name on it be cancelled? Every indigenous leader of the past lived with slavery, and many actively engaged in the practice. Should they be cancelled? And on that topic, many of those same indigenous leaders, like Joseph Brant and Chief Louis Clexlixquen advocated for, and built residential schools. Should they be cancelled too?
And once we do all that cancelling, and we realize that the new historical figures on the street signs also had imperfections, do we then start all over and cancel them too?
Or, should we all take a deep breath and exercise a little common sense?
Renaming Dundas Street will cost Toronto taxpayers $8.6 million and three ex-mayors have now come out against this decision. Which brings us back to the imminent cancellation of Bishop Grandin Boulevard in Winnipeg. Frontier reached out several times to the council for information on the timing of the cancelation and got no response. Undoubtedly perhaps the city machine has decided that during election time (Manitoba’s election is October 3) its best to leave this hot potato alone.
How many votes would go to the Tories if they announced the decision will be reviewed if they return to power?
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy