Colonization Road name changes put on hold

Ken Kellar
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Following a lengthy discussion and input from council, the decision to rename the pair of Colonization Roads in Fort Frances has been postponed, for now.

A high-visibility item on Monday night’s town council agenda, mayor and council had the opportunity to discuss the movement to rename Colonization Road East and Colonization Road West, following a motion introduced by councillor Doug Judson last week. The impetus for the name change revolves around reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a letter to municipalities from the Ontario Human Rights Council (OHRC). Both call for language pertaining to practices that are considered derogatory or racist, such as the concept of colonization, to be removed from public spaces as an act of reconciliation to Indigenous populations in Canada. A similar motion was introduced and subsequently voted down in 2017.

While mayor and council were not against the idea that the names could be changed, it was decided that the town would push the process back, something mayor June Caul recommended and said was partly in response to the exceptional year Fort Frances has seen.

“At this time, I believe the diligent way for council to handle this issue at hand would be to table the discussion to a later date, which will give staff an opportunity to plan and full investigate the effects on all residents, businesses and the general public,” she said.

“All matters that come to council are investigated by staff, discussed in an executive committee, and then a recommendation is given to council for a decision. This has been a very busy and difficult year as we deal with COVID-19 and a loss of revenue. Now we need to try to develop a balanced budget for 2021, all while trying to determine a tax rate that will not impact our residents any further as COVID-19 continues to affect our community and residents.”

While the mayor expressed her concerns surrounding the amount of work that goes into deciding the budget that town staff is already tasked with, she acknowledged that the name change is something that everyone is town should be open to learning about, if not necessarily agreeing with the change itself.

“The most important decisions and policies that council should make going forward is to ensure people of all race, colour, religion, gender identity and ancestry be respected,” Caul said.

“I hope people would welcome any educational opportunities to learn about the history of unfair and degrading practices not only here in our own community but around world and how those practices bullied and marginalized people for generations and still have an effect on them today. Nothing we do will erase the history of disrespect and abuse inflicted on our Indigenous people, but going forward we should be willing to learn and be understanding and sympathetic. What happened in the past still affects their lives today and will continue to affect people for generations. Our decisions going forward must create a positive outcome for all the people so that our future history does not negatively impact any group.”

Councillor Judson addressed council in order to clarify the origins of his motion, and what having a road named “colonization” means to people who are coming to and visiting Fort Frances.

“Since 2015, Canadians have been on a swift journey to acknowledge what has been missing in how we understand the words that tell our story,” Judson said.

“That year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its landmark report, which exposed, with evidence, the devastating inter-generational impact that ‘colonization’ has had on Indigenous people.”

“When I speak to people in the community, and particularly young people with young families, they tell me that Colonization Road is an obstacle to our progress,” he continued.

“When I speak to Indigenous people, they tell me that by avoiding conversations about what colonization stands for it looks like Fort Frances is only interested in the upside of reconciliation, such as economic partnership and joint strategies, without internalizing the facts of our history… While many people who think of colonization envision homesteaders moving to the Rainy River District with grants of free land to start a new life, that depiction fails to account for the toll colonization has taken on those who were already here. The choice to frame historical accounts in this way has, itself, been part of the project of colonization.”

Councillor Wendy Brunetta, who is the only member of council who was serving at the time of the previous name change motion, offered her take on the possible difficulties of continuing with the name change at this point in time, though she continues to be supportive of the initiative.

“For those of you who are not aware, I was the one dissenting vote in the last term of council to keep the name unchanged,” she said.

“My reasons at the time, which remain the same, are that if we want to be seen as a welcoming and inclusive community, we need to make this change… The one concern I do have about renaming the road is that there are many residents and businesses who will have to go to Service Ontario to have their documentation changed, and in the midst of winter and a pandemic, we could possibly see long lineups outside the Service Ontario building.”

While Brunetta said there would be ways to deal with this in the event the name change began, such as bringing a Service Ontario representative to a location like the council chambers to keep people out of the cold and assist with process, she reiterated that she supported the name change, whenever it is finally decided.

“Changing the name will not change our past, but can change the future,” she said.

“We can change how our community is viewed by visitors and neighbours. This is one small step we can take towards reconciliation. It’s short term pain for long term gain. It’s the right thing to do in my mind. I do agree mayor Caul that this is an issue we all need to really put a lot of thought into. we all take our jobs as councillor very seriously, and I would agree to delaying it or deferring it as you say, so we can get more information going forward.”

Councillors Andrew Hallikas, Mike Behan, Rick Wiedenhoeft and John McTaggart all voiced their support of the mayors suggestion of not shutting down the conversation, but instead moving it further down the line in order to give it as much time and consideration as possible. The topic will be sent to the Operations and Facilities Executive Committee and the Planning and Development Executive Committees for a decision on when to bring it back before council.

In a statement released following the meeting, Judson called the decision to send the item to committee for consideration a “positive development” though he noted it “does not preclude me or any other council member from bringing a resolution forward to our next meeting, on December 14.”

“Obviously, there are a number of opinions on this topic and many people have practical questions,” the statement read.

“That’s why I decided to defer a vote on my proposed resolution in order to give councillors more time to confer with their constituents and conduct their own independent research… I am confident that the executive committees can develop a proper timeline and process related to the request to rename Colonization Road.”

Judson will also be hosting an online panel titled “Colonization in Contect” on his Facebook page beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday night. The event will feature a handful of panellists who will discuss the local history of colonization and “enduring impacts of colonization in the Fort Frances area” according to the event page.