Canadian Press Photo

‘Shift in perspective:’ Indigenous place names moving Canada from colonial past

EDMONTON — To Terri Suntjens, symbolism means everything.

That’s why she decided to get involved with the City of Edmonton’s initiative to rename its wards.Suntjens, who is from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, became a co-chair of the Indigenous Naming Committee.

“Our elders talk to us about how symbolism is so important,” says Suntjens, who is also director of Indigenous initiatives at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

“And we can teach from that.”

Earlier this month, the city passed a bylaw to give its 12 numbered wards Indigenous names.

A committee of Indigenous women chose the names, which come from nine groups: Cree, Dene, Inuit, Blackfoot, Anishinaabe, Michif (Métis), Mohawk (Michel Band), Sioux and Papaschase.

Edmonton is a gathering place for all nations, Suntjens says, so it was important to consult with elders across the province.

The decision by Alberta’s capital to give its wards Indigenous names is an example of a movement in Canada away from names or figures with colonial connections.

In the summer, a group toppled a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal after a peaceful march through the city’s downtown, one of several demonstrations held across the country by a coalition of Black and Indigenous activists.

Other statues of Canada’s first prime minister have been a point of contention, too, as some want them removed because of his troubled history with Indigenous people.

In Halifax,a group including theAssembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs recommended a statue dedicated to city founder Edward Cornwallis be permanently removed, and a street and a park honouring him also be renamed.

Commemoration of Cornwallis, a British officer accused of genocide against Indigenous people, is incompatible with current values, the group said in a report in July.

Suntjens says there are schools across the country named after people with problematic colonial histories. Her committee decided early on to stay away from naming Edmonton’s wards after people and to honour the land instead.

“We do not think of people as above us or below us,” Suntjens says. “We don’t put people up on pedestals. That is not our way.”

The name for Edmonton’s former Ward 2, for example, is Aniriq, meaning breath of life or spirit in Inuktun. It was recommended by Inuit elders to honour their people who died of tuberculosis in Edmonton.

In the 1950s and ’60s, about one-third of Inuit were infected with the illness and most were flown south for treatment. Many died without their families being notified and were buried in cemeteries in the city.

Rob Houle, an Indigenous writer and researcher who also served on the renaming committee, says feedback has mostly been positive, but some councillors showed resistance.

“Some might have expected these Indigenous names for the wards to be easier or introductory in nature, but that is not what we were tasked to do.”

That kind of reaction prompted Edmonton Coun. Aaron Paquette to tweet: “For those who might be worried about pronouncing the potential new ward names … if we can pronounce Saskatchewan, we can do anything.”

In British Columbia, a plan in March to use Indigenous names for some communities along the Sunshine Coast was met with backlash.

Peter Robson, president of the Pender Harbour and Area Residents Association, says there was no warning or consultation with non-Indigenous people in the area.

He says his community of Madeira Park was to be renamed “salalus” as part of an agreement between the B.C. government and the Sechelt Nation in 2018.

“One cannot deny that (Sechelt) Nation people lived here before non-Indigenous people. However, there is also a newer history of the land … that too deserves recognition,” read Robson’s letter to the provincial government.

A more successful project happened in Alberta in September, when a racist and misogynistic nickname for a landmark on Mount Charles Stewart in the Rocky Mountains was removed. Elders chose to bring back the feature’s original name: Anu katha Ipa, or Bald Eagle Peak.

Christina Gray, a B.C.-based lawyer and research fellow with the Yellowhead Institute, a First-Nations-led think tank, commends Edmonton’s naming project and says she hopes to see other jurisdictions follow.

“This year in particular, we’ve seen a tidal shift in perspective, especially around problematic figures throughout Canadian history,” Gray says.

“It is also changing in so many different countries that have also experienced colonialism and imperialism.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 25, 2020.

Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre's expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer hospital ICU admissions stable, but rising, says surgeon

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s intensive care unit is in better… Continue reading

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid races to 100 points this NHL season

Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid sprinted to a 100-point NHL season and… Continue reading

A Foodora courier is pictured as they pick up an order for delivery from a restaurant in Toronto, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Two-year EI review needed to buy time for needed tech upgrades, Qualtrough says

OTTAWA — Canada’s employment minister says a budgetary pledge for funding to… Continue reading

A person wears a face mask as they walk through McGill University during light snowfall in Montreal, Sunday, December 20, 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Some universities say no to proof of vaccination requirement

A COVID-19 vaccine likely won’t be a requirement to return to the… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, participate in a virtual discussion with seniors from Residence Memphremagog in Magog, Que., from Ottawa on Monday, May 3, 2021. Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats are on the move in advance of a potential election this year, recruiting candidates, training volunteers and grappling with how to kiss babies and press the flesh in a virtual, pandemic-restricted world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Grappling with how to press the virtual flesh, parties gear up for election showdown

OTTAWA — The three main national parties are firing up their election… Continue reading

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, is setting off a social media reaction with his calls to stop non essential shopping, such as "buying sandals at Costco", with this photo of his worn sandals, which he published to social media on Saturday, May 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Dr. Robert Strang, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Nova Scotia’s top doctor sparks meme with caution on non-essential shopping

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s top doctor has launched a social media meme… Continue reading

Most Read