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City council asks for Indigenous names to be chosen for Edmonton’s new ward boundaries

Looking across the North Saskatchewan River at downtown Edmonton, Alta. Summer 2019.
Looking across the North Saskatchewan River at downtown Edmonton, Alta. Summer 2019. Dave Carels, Global News

An eleventh hour request from local elders, teachers and First Nations representatives has prompted Edmonton city council to hold off on adding generic names and instead pick Indigenous names for new wards that will be in place for the October 2021 civic election.

City council, after a public hearing Tuesday to set the new ward boundaries, opted to hold off voting on the first reading of the bylaw to give them time to instead find appropriate Indigenous names for the wards.

No firm date has been set to bring back the 12 names, however council agreed they want to know that names are applicable to the areas, and have significance, so they’ll first review them with the local Indigenous communities where the names originate.

READ MORE: Edmonton city council to consider a dramatically redrawn ward map

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Council was told Tuesday that there is enough time, and enough expertise to rely on, to have the names by the end of the summer.

“I would say yes, absolutely,” Terri Stuntjens, the director of Indigenous initiatives at MacEwan University, said. “We have really good relationships with Chiefs and with our Indigenous communities that we reach out to, especially with in the City of Edmonton.

“It definitely is possible. We can get you 12 names by Sept. 1.”

She said Treaty 6 Grand Chief Billy Morin has already offered to help bring leaders from the community together.

Eight of the working, more generic names that were announced on June 9 carry geographic markers like North, South and Central. Four of them had names more familiar to Edmonton like Whitemud, Gateway, Jasper Place and Scona.

Rob Houle, who is being used as a resource by council on the debate and is from the city’s Indigenous Resource Office said this is an opportunity to right a wrong, especially after Truth and Reconciliation.

“The fact that it (the Indigenous names) hasn’t happened, I think is a miscue on all parts.”

READ MORE: City of Edmonton asking for feedback on councillor wards ahead of 2021 election

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He also said they should avoid using a permanent or honourary name that could have negative connotations, like Lord Strathcona, which had been shortened to Scona.

“(Lord Strathcona) wasn’t a very good person to Indigenous people, so why would you want to give him and his ward an honourary name?” Houle said.

“For instance, when you’re travelling down to the Walterdale Bridge, the whole area is depicting John A. MacDonald and pushes out Papaschase,” said elder Lillian Gadwa. “Papaschase was a reserve within Edmonton that needs to be recognized as a reserve.”

Gadwa was one of two elders who urged council to make the move. Elder Francis Whiskeyjack said you shouldn’t name things randomly. “The sacredness of the language is what links. It’s how you walk your talk. If you understood Cree it’s a sacred language that connects people, it connects relationships, it connects to the universe, we’re all children of the Creator.”

Houle said he has no doubt Indigenous leaders can provide the answers city council is looking for. He said how the city reacted quickly to COVID-19 shows they can.

“We gave away free transit in the matter of a week or two,” he said. “There is no limit to what the city can achieve and that’s what this whole pandemic has taught us.”

READ MORE: Papaschase First Nation opens gas station in Edmonton

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Houle said the city should work hard to avoid accidentally providing a name that’s inappropriate, which he said has happened in the city in past decades.

“(Names) are applied in a very tokenistic fashion. Especially around the Mill Woods area, where the former Papaschase reserve used to be. [It was] almost as if neighborhood committees and naming committees, and whoever was doing the naming back then, just wanted to apply an Aboriginal flavour, an Indigenous flavour to the area without really thinking about that location and consistency and connection to the area.”

Houle added that it’s an opportunity for the city to choose respectful names that also honour the area’s history.

“We are not looking at naming these wards after racial slurs — the football team is named after a racial slur.”

READ MORE: Nunavut MP calls on Eskimos to change name after club tweets support for George Floyd protests

It’s estimated the cost to make the changes would be around $150,000, said interim city manager Adam Laughlin.

Should Edmonton redefine its current ward system?
Should Edmonton redefine its current ward system?

Council has asked for the names to be back in early September, so they can be voted on in a new bylaw later in the month. They have a meeting scheduled for September 22.

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