Family waits 40 years to redress name change

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Hundreds of Winnipeg’s streets have been renamed over the course of its history. Most changes were made to prevent confusion with the same or similar-sounding street names in surrounding municipalities and little regard was given to their historical significance.

While most of these original street names are long forgotten, the descendants of Jon J. Vopni still feel strongly that an injustice that was done when Vopni Avenue was renamed Park Lane Avenue in 1982.

Jon J. Vopni came to Manitoba from Iceland in the late 1880s. He got into the construction business and early projects included sidings and outbuildings along new railway lines. In 1899, he was awarded the contract to build a pier at Gimli Harbour.

Oddson, Hansson, Vopni was one of the many real estate companies that Jon Vopni was involved in that sold lots and homes, primarily in the West End.

Vopni’s attention turned to Winnipeg’s West End which was being subdivided into a residential district between 1903 and 1910. He received dozens of building permits for houses along streets like Toronto and Victor and was a partner in development companies that sold off hundreds of lots for others to build on. He was one of a handful of Icelandic developers who got into apartment block construction and together they built dozens of three-storey walk-ups around the city in the lead-up to the First World War.

The community also benefitted from Vopni’s success. He was a long-time executive member of the Winnipeg General Hospital, First Lutheran Church, and Gimli’s Islendingadagurinn. He also served two terms on Winnipeg city council in 1917 and 1918.

Vopni Avenue first appears in the 1907 street directory. It was part of a “workingmen’s subdivision” called Noble Park in what was then the Village of Brooklands, east of Keewatin Street. It was likely Thomas Noble of the Noble Land Company who named the street for him.

Jon J. Vopni, in a photo from 1915.

Noble Park existed until the 1970s, when the City of Winnipeg expropriated the residences for a retention pond in Woodsworth Park. A motion to rename Vopni to Park Lane was passed by city council in April 1980 after a request from the owner of an industrial property located on it, and the new name came in to effect June 27, 1982.

The change was controversial as it was later found that the councillor who created the motion had financial ties to the property owner and some felt he should have abstained from voting under conflict-of-interest rules.

The Icelandic National League of North America also involved itself by passing a motion at its 1981 annual conference that began: “The Icelandic Community is deeply perturbed by the decision of city council to rename Vopni Avenue.” It called on council to rescind the decision or to name another street, preferably in the West End, for him.

The city promised to reuse the name but 40 years the family still waits

Dorothy Mills, a granddaughter of Vopni who represents several of his descendants across Canada, says “our ideal scenario would be to have Park Lane revert to its original name” or at least the portion of the dogleg street that borders the park and has no addresses on it. Barring that, they would like a street in the West End named for him.

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