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Municipalities grapple with renaming Colonization Roads to further Indigenous reconciliation and awareness

Colonization Roads were built and named in the mid- to late-1800s as migrating settlers moved in and displaced First Nations
May 11, 2022
Willow Fiddler

Until recently, the northwestern Ontario town of Fort Frances had two streets labelled Colonization Road. One is a picturesque street with big oak trees overlooking the glistening shores of Rainy River. It’s a spot held sacred by the local Anishinaabe of Couchiching First Nation, and now popular with tourists who come for the annual bass fishing tournament every July. The other Colonization Road, on the west side of town, is in a mostly residential neighbourhood of modest, middle-class homes.

But both roads were plain-as-day reminders of the town’s colonial past and displacement of Indigenous people by white settlers -- the names said as much, right there on the street signs.

In January, after years of debate and consultations, the Fort Frances town council renamed both roads. Colonization Road East officially became Agamiing Drive (”at the shore” in Ojibway), and Colonization Road West became Sunset Drive.

The Globe identified 11 other “Colonization Roads” across Canada, and many of the municipalities in which they’re located have also been grappling with whether -- and how -- to rename them, as an important step toward reconciliation and raising awareness of Indigenous history.

These roads were built and named in the mid- to late-1800s as migrating settlers moved in and displaced First Nations. Under the Public Lands Act, the settlers were given free parcels of land as incentives to populate local areas, while the First Nations people were ushered onto reserve lands under treaty agreements and the federal government’s Indian Act.

For many Indigenous people, the roads are a reminder of official policies designed to get rid of them and what the government used to refer to as “the Indian problem.” They say that it’s time to do away with a name that bears a shameful history and legacy of genocide and assimilation.

Nicole Miller, an Anishinaabe lawyer in Fort Frances and member of Couchiching First Nation, was one of the approximately 125 people in the town of nearly 8,000 residents, to write a letter to the municipality during the public consultation process in 2020.

“We’re asking you to acknowledge that our history was traumatic, and that these words could be triggering to us,” Ms. Miller says she told town officials in her letter. ”And as a good neighbour, and in true reconciliation, you should change the name.”

In 2017, a previous council had decided against the renaming amid an onslaught of public resistance, including an editorial in the local newspaper, the Fort Frances Times, titled, “Don’t be ashamed of our colonial past.”

This time around, the majority of the letters were in support of renaming the Colonization Roads, with a small number against the idea, said Cody Vangel, the chief building official and municipal planner for the town of Fort Frances.

One letter suggested that it was only a small group that wanted the name changed and that appeasing them would lead to racial divides, while other townspeople were concerned with the time, effort and cost required to change their mailing addresses. Some letter-writers pointed out that putting up new road signs wouldn’t change history.

Ms. Miller said the commentary on social media -- and comments she heard from some in the town -- revealed undercurrents of racism in the community. She has attributed resistance to the renaming to an overall lack of education.

“Maybe ... these people really don’t understand or know what colonization is, and what it did to the First Nations people in Canada and the U.S.,” she said.

She urges non-Indigenous people not to take the renaming personally. “We’re not doing this to punish you,” she said.

Throughout it all, Ms. Miller has felt that Indigenous perspectives were getting lost in the debate, despite many of the Indigenous citizens being business and home owners who contribute to the tax pool.

Douglas Judson lobbied for the changing of two Fort Frances street names, from Colonization Road East and West to Agamiing Drive, meaning 'at the shore' in Ojibway, and Sunset Drive.
Douglas Judson, the town councillor and lawyer who brought forward the most recent motion to make the change, thinks the resistance the town has seen may be because of the challenge to some long-time residents’ romantic ideas of their family’s role in the community for generations.

“We’re drawing attention to a view of history that just debunks some of the myths that they’ve believed in all their lives,” he said.

Mr. Judson belongs to one the many families in Fort Frances who can trace their lineage back to early settlement in the late 1800s, and his grandparents still live on their farm.

“There’s pride in it -- we worked hard, we cleared the land, we’re five generations into this,” he said. “So there’s this idea that, ‘Well, anything that ... pushes back on my understanding of what our local history is, is an affront to me -- or it’s dismissing those contributions to the community.’”

But he doesn’t see it that way. “You can be proud of your lineage, you can be proud of your hard work that created your farm, or whatever it is your family has done for the last several decades.” But, he said, it’s also important to recognize that “this community’s growth hasn’t been positive for everyone.”

Mr. Judson was disappointed that council focused on technicalities -- such as coming up with a street-renaming policy -- instead of leading broader discussions on reconciliation, decolonization and how Fort Frances can better incorporate and acknowledge Indigenous culture and symbolism into the municipality.

After suggestions for new street names were submitted, council eventually voted on the name change, with a tie-breaker by the mayor.

JoAnne Gustafson, a member of Couchiching First Nation and resident of Fort Frances who works as an educator in the public school system, was asked by Mr. Judson to be a panelist during the public consultations. She said that awareness is slowly improving -- for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents of Fort Frances.

The need for an educational component is “absolutely essential” to the road-renaming process, Ms. Gustafson said, as it builds empathy among those in the community who have yet to open their hearts and minds to what the true impacts of colonization have been.

The town is still working through what the educational component will look like, but Ms. Gustafson said it should include Indigenous residents.

More and more, Fort Frances locals, particularly young Indigenous people, she said, have been learning in recent years about the brutal legacy of colonization. News coverage of unmarked graves at residential schools has led to critical questions and conversations about what their parents and grandparents went through, and where they fit in.

Ron Archie, founder of High Council Cannabis Shop on Couchiching First Nation, acquired a Colonization Road East sign the day they were removed. Archie says he keeps the sign upside down in opposition of what the sign represented to his community.

Kayleigh Spears, curator of the Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Centre, holds a Colonization Road sign, which is being added to the museum collection.

St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School operated in Fort Frances between 1906 and 1974, and is not far from where the street formerly known as Colonization Road East begins. It was one of several residential schools in northwestern Ontario where thousands of First Nations children experienced the horrors of the church- and government-run institutions.

Ms. Gustafson also said that some people can be retraumatized by words like “colonization.” The term brings up more than just residential school stories -- it’s also a reminder of the individual and systemic racism that persists in Fort Frances to this day.

“You pull out your status card at the store, and people give you a look and roll their eyes,” she said. “We have to let people know, this is really what [colonization] is and what it looks like.” These incidents affect their sense of belonging in a town that, at times, still feels divided, she said.

In the meantime, three of the abolished Colonization Road East and West signs will go to the Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Centre, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung (Manitou Mounds) Interpretive Centre in Stratton, Ont.

Ms. Gustafson is optimistic about the positive impacts to the community, despite any criticism.

“I think there’s good to come about,” she said.

Fort Frances isn’t the only town to rename streets as a step toward reconciliation. The Globe and Mail identified 12 municipalities in Canada with Colonization Roads. We reached out to find out what, if anything, had been changed or would be changed.

Five municipalities have renamed their Colonization Roads in the last five years:

Kenora, Ont. -- In 2017, the road was renamed Nash Street.

Dryden, Ont. -- This northwestern Ontario town picked two names to replace its Colonization Roads in 2020: Boozhoo (“hello” in Ojibway) Avenue and Memorial Avenue.

Lake of Bays, Ont. -- Renamed Old Sinclair Road in 2020, following a request from local First Nations.

St. Clements, Man. -- Now Reconciliation Road. The decision was made with input from Brokenhead First Nation.

Fort Frances, Ont. -- Now Agamiing (“at the shore” in Ojibway) Drive and Sunset Drive.

Three municipalities are in the process of renaming their Colonization Roads:

Spanish, Ont. -- Chief administrative officer and clerk/treasurer Pam Lortie said they are working on changing the name in the coming months.

Gimli, Man. -- Councillor Cody Magnusson said he put a motion forward to change the names of its four Colonization Roads following the news of the 251 unmarked graves in Kamloops last spring and summer.

Emo, Ont. -- Council voted last winter in favour of renaming its Colonization Road.

Dawson, Ont., Johnson, Ont., and Sudbury, Ont. have not initiated a renaming process.

Tweed, Ont., was the only municipality of the 12 identified in Ontario and Manitoba that didn’t respond to The Globe’s e-mails.