Last week’s chilling discovery of unmarked burial sites at a British Columbia former residential school — containing the remains of 215 children — has reignited the debate over which historical figures should be honoured in Canada.
In Winnipeg, a major roadway, Bishop Grandin Boulevard, bears the name of Roman Catholic Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, one of the architects of the residential school system.
In the wake of the discovery at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, many Manitobans are calling for the names of Grandin and others to be removed from public roads, schools and more.
“I think there comes a time when you have to revisit the decisions you’ve made in the past — who we’ve chosen to remember and honour within the context of history, with knowledge,” author David A. Robertson told 680 CJOB.
“Bishop Grandin was one of the architects of the residential school system. He was personally responsible for the establishment of at least three of them.
“What Indigenous people have known for a long time is that this is a system of genocide and people have been responsible for that system — why are we immortalizing them?”
Robertson, who is Swampy Cree, has covered the residential school topic in his work, including When We Were Alone, a Governor General’s Literary Award-winning children’s book.
He said he doesn’t buy the argument that sites named for people like Grandin or former prime minister John A. Macdonald are for educational purposes.
“That’s not what a statue is for. That’s not what naming a street for someone is for,” he said. “You can educate about someone like Bishop Grandin or John A. Macdonald in a textbook.
“These children in British Columbia, these 215 children … there will be more. There are other mass graves in this country, and they’ll be discovered.
“This question will keep coming up, and I think we need to be proactive and make better choices.”
The City of Winnipeg has already pledged to address Bishop Grandin Boulevard, with Mayor Brian Bowman — the city’s first mayor of Indigenous descent — encouraging his council colleagues to consider posting a historical marker to provide proper context to Grandin’s role in Canadian history.
According to a statement from the city, the proposal will be presented to the Welcoming Winnipeg Committee of Community Members — the group that guides city decision-making on historical markers and place names — this month.
“It’s my hope that this work can occur in an expeditious manner so that council can consider next steps to support our community’s reconciliation efforts,” Bowman tweeted Monday.
The city discourages renaming streets due to the cost, inconvenience and confusion it may cause, but chair of the Welcoming Winnipeg Committee, Reanna Merasty, said this renaming goes far beyond those considerations.
“It’s this constant reminder of that genocide and of that hurt, and this is very much different than any other street name or any other process,” Merasty said. “It’s much bigger than that.
Merasty notes leaving the name as-is honours someone involved in a terrible part of Canadian history.
“I refuse to let it be celebrated anymore, it doesn’t need to be celebrated,” Merasty said.
The committee will meet Friday to discuss how to move forward with the renaming.
Merasty said so far the committee hasn’t received any requests they would consider, and a process which appropriately represents Indigenous peoples will take time.
Anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience can access this 24-hour, toll-free and confidential National Indian Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.