Skip to content

'Whose histories are we ignoring?'

Place names provide an important forum for expressing community values, an expert says.
1201 renaming feature 2 rn CC
Ann Ramsden, executive director of Arts and Heritage St. Albert, highlighted how exploring city names provides an important forum for discussing how we understand history. BRITTANY GERVAIS/St. Albert Gazette

The names of St. Albert’s streets, roads, and buildings tell a story of the city’s history, but whether they should demarcate the city in the present is still up for debate.  

Travel through the average St. Albert neighbourhood, and you’ll find the names of early settlers, city mayors and employees, members of the catholic church, school inspectors and principals, and Métis families living on Big Lake before Father Albert Lacombe — St. Albert’s namesake — arrived.

Some names sit outside these categories, but still speak to the history of St. Albert, such as Eastbrick Place, named for the brick foundry that once employed many St. Albertans. Visit Riel Park and you might find Elke’s Point, named after the environmental activist and St. Albertan Elke Blodgett, who fought to protect Big Lake. 

“Names bring stories to life in St. Albert,” Ann Ramsden, executive director of Arts and Heritage St. Albert, said. “They connect people who made a difference in the past to the community today.”

As the year has unfolded, however, many have questioned whether St. Albert’s names are still reflective of the community’s values, most notably names connected to residential school supporter Bishop Vital Grandin.

Ramsden noted the ongoing reckoning with Canada’s history is happening across the country, giving the example of the Famous Five, who fought a political and legal battle to have women recognized as persons under law. St. Albert’s Muir Drive is named after one of the famous five, Henrietta Muir Edwards.

Recently, public conversations have centred around exploring the role these women played in affirming beliefs about racial superiority and eugenics, in tandem with their penchant for fighting sexism. 

“They were suffragettes, and feminists, and pushed barriers, but they also believed in things we don’t believe in anymore, and that’s cooled some of their legacy,” Ramsden said.

While we continue to grapple with the complex history of these feminists, others honoured on St. Albert’s streets might also deserve a second glance, this time for their role in actively opposing gender equality. 

For example, Boudreau Road and Lucien Drive are both named after Lucien Boudreau, the former St. Albert mayor and MLA. Boudreau was the only person in Alberta’s legislature to vote against giving women the right to vote.

Ramsden highlighted how exploring city names — and in turn, changing understandings of how the figures they commemorate align with current values — provides an important forum for understanding history. 

“It brings the conversation into the public eye,” Ramsden said. “We can ask, ‘What is the legacy of this particular person?’”

Nisha Patel, Edmonton’s 2019-2021 poet laureate, recently used her platform to highlight just that. 

“Names mean so much,” Patel said. “It’s one thing not to have known about harm, but it’s another to know and continue to live with that perpetuated … It’s a hard decision to rename things, but it is a necessary one.”

During her tenure as poet laureate, Patel presented her poem “In search of alternative names for Churchill Square” to Edmonton city council.

Churchill presided over the 1943 famine in Bengal, where approximately three million Indians died largely as a result of British imperial indifference. The iconic Second World War leader also scoffed at his colleagues who were not in favour of using poisoned gas against “uncivilized tribes.”

Patel’s poem explores this violent legacy, one St. Albert’s avenue of the same name also connects to. 

Presented on May 17, Patel said the poem felt fortuitous; two weeks later, statues across Canada were toppled by protesters, and the statue of Churchill in Edmonton’s square ended up covered in red paint. 

“I wanted to bring something up that might make council uncomfortable,” Patel said of her choice of the poem. “When I searched for themes, this was important — not just for me, as someone who lives in Canada on stolen land — but as someone who comes from the Indian diaspora, whose country was directly colonized.”

In June 2021, St. Albert city council voted to have administration develop a plan to seek public engagement on renaming infrastructure associated with residential school supporters, and rework St. Albert’s naming policy for the future. 

The plan is currently unfunded in the city’s 2022 draft budget. The total public consultation plan would cost $325,000, but the policy change alone would be around $35,000, city administration said in background documents informing the budget process. Whether part, or all, of the business case gets funded will be the subject of budget deliberation beginning Dec. 2.

Naming as an act of reconciliation

Crystal Fraser, assistant professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, developed an educational resource called “150 Acts of Reconciliation for the Last 150 Days of Canada’s 150” with her colleague Sara Komarnisky in 2017. 

Some of the acts, Fraser noted, centre around naming, such as a call to observe “what is celebrated and recognized in the monuments, parks, and street names” in one's city. 

“Think about how public history could be told differently,” the act encourages. 

For Fraser, who lived in St. Albert for six years starting in 2004, renaming is part of learning to tell history differently. Instead of erasing the past, Fraser argued, renaming acknowledges that only a select few are highlighted in our communities through naming, and that we have the ability to choose those few carefully. 

“All of that history is still accessible in dozens of history books, in St. Albert’s own archives, and online,” Fraser said. “This process of naming really demonstrates the values in our current society … as we’re now very firmly in this era of truth and reconciliation, the question needs to be: ‘Who are we choosing to celebrate, and whose histories are we ignoring?”

Fraser noted more work is still needed to untangle the complex history of institutions St. Albert honours through its names, such as the role the Oblates played in the residential school system, or the RCMP’s involvement in displacing Indigenous people throughout the Prairies. 

St. Albert’s own documents discussing the history of city names only present one side of this story. For example, the brief backgrounder in a 2018 document on Mount Royal Drive, named after the Northwest Mounted Police (which later became the Royal Mounted Police) reads: “the police played a very important role in attracting settlement to the Prairies.”

Similar to Ramsden, Fraser said exploring naming can provide a route into the woods of these complex conversations about institutions and power, and how they've shaped the society we live in. 

“Renaming might not seem like a big gesture, but the way that we use language, and the way that we think about geography and space connect to our most deep-seated beliefs … maybe it’s time to revisit them,” Fraser said.