A chance to learn from our history

Edmonton faced a provocative problem that now echoes in Winnipeg: what should be done with homage to Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, an architect of the residential-school system?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/03/2021 (565 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Edmonton faced a provocative problem that now echoes in Winnipeg: what should be done with homage to Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, an architect of the residential-school system?

While Winnipeg is considering whether to rename places named after Bishop Grandin, an issue in Edmonton was a large mural inside a Light Rapid Transit station. The mural, which many Edmontonians considered offensive, was painted 31 years ago. It shows Bishop Grandin exuding an air of compassion as he stands beside a nun holding an Indigenous child, with a residential school in the background.

The easiest solution for Edmonton officials sensitive to the horrific history of residential schools would have been to paint over the mural. Instead, they tried a creative solution. New Indigenous-friendly murals were commissioned and unveiled in 2014 on both sides of the original display — a white buffalo to symbolize peace, and another showing a smiling Indigenous girl and a proud Indigenous man.

Bishop Grandin Boulevard (above) is a major city thoroughfare, while the Bishop Grandin Greenway Trail is a 30-kilometre trail and recreation area. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Commendably, Edmonton approached its Bishop Grandin controversy as an opportunity to display reconciliation. The innovative solution to add additional murals to the original, rather than paint over a historical view, emerged from a local arts council that formed a working circle including elders and members of Indigenous communities.

The specifics of Winnipeg’s Bishop Grandin quandary are larger than a single mural, of course. The Winnipeg traces of the 19th-century Roman Catholic bishop are widespread.

Bishop Grandin Boulevard is a major city thoroughfare. Bishop Grandin Greenway Trail is a 30-kilometre trail and recreation area. St. Vital is a community of 68,000 residents, and the St. Vital name identifies schools, businesses, churches, a park and a mall.

It’s understandable that some people want to strip Winnipeg of all traces of a man who promoted residential schools, but the practicalities of a comprehensive cancelling would be complex to the point of being unattainable.

The municipal representative of the ward named after Bishop Grandin, Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital), suggests an alternative. He called for a committee of community members to consider erecting a plaque or historical marker at the entrance of the Bishop Grandin Greenway at the intersection of Bishop Grandin Boulevard and River Road.

“Let’s not rename it. Let’s learn from history, let’s not try to erase it,” said Mayes.

His desire to add current context to Bishop Grandin’s legacy echoes the Edmonton mural solution: don’t try to whitewash the past, re-examine it through enlightened eyes.

Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital) wants community members to consider erecting a plaque or historical marker at the entrance of the Bishop Grandin Greenway. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Initial Indigenous reaction to Mr. Mayes’ request to add historical markers was split. David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, said the Bishop Grandin name shouldn’t be changed (”Let the stain remain”) and more education is warranted. Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said, “I’d prefer if we renamed it something else.”

The views of these and other Indigenous groups should be sought by the committee that is devising a policy, which is called Welcoming Winnipeg: Reconciling our History. It will make recommendations to city council on requests to alter city-owned plaques, statues, murals, parks, buildings, trails and bridges.

It’s encouraging that, at least at the public level in Winnipeg, there is consensus the residential schools supported by Bishop Grandin caused generational damage.

His name was initially bestowed as an honour. Now, his name is recognized as a relic of a shameful past. This shift in the public regard for his legacy indicates that, finally, reconciliation is inching in the right direction.

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