Vikki Wiercinski

Should We Rename Institutions?

Kristopher Wells, the MacEwan University Canada Research Chair in Sexual and Gender Minority Youth Issues, says yes. 

There’s been a lot of discussion of late about names and the importance of representation. Almost overnight, landmarks have been renamed, monuments taken down (sometimes officially; other times as protest) and sports teams have changed their names and logos. Our own communities have seen public institutions, schools and streets renamed.

Edmonton’s electoral wards have been given new Indigenous names. An LRT station was stripped of its name and a mural removed depicting Bishop Grandin, one of the most vocal proponents of the residential school system. One of the province’s founding Catholic settlements, St. Albert, is also coming to terms with the bishop’s name, featured prominently in the Grandin neighbourhood and on signs and schools.

Calgary Catholic School District changed Bishop Grandin High School’s name to Our Lady of the Rockies. Likewise, the Calgary Board of Education changed Langevin School back to Riverside due to Hector-Louis Langevin’s role as one of the architects of the residential school system. A mountain near Canmore was renamed by the Stoney Nakoda Nation to its traditional name of Anû Kathâ Îpa (Bald Eagle Peak). More changes are sure to come.

Has society become too sensitive or woke? Or are we simply catching up with the times and righting the wrongs of the past? Is this revisionist history, or part of reconciliation?

Names matter. They tell an important story about who we are and aspire to be as a society. Names give us a sense of identity, place and remembrance. They also give shape, structure and permanence to what we hold to be important.

The process of renaming has garnered more public support in response to the discovery of the unmarked graves of hundreds of children at the Kamloops residential school site, which led to unsettling discoveries at other former residential schools across Canada. The shock and growing outrage felt by Canadians has prompted increased attention to the calls of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and ways to take more meaningful and immediate action to promote listening, healing and education about past injustices.

Public schools are the heart of communities, where society most directly transmits its core values and beliefs. Renaming schools or other public institutions is one of the easiest changes we can make in the spirit of reconciliation. The deeper and more systemic changes called for by the TRC will take more time. Reconciliation is a generational process led through awareness and education. If we can’t or won’t change problematic names on our buildings, what hope does true reconciliation have?

Representation is a powerful force. When we put names on the outside of buildings, what does that tell us about who gets invited in? Our institutions’ names need to reflect the diversity of our communities and the values that we want our citizens to celebrate and uphold.

Mathew Preston, the consultant with Canadian Strategy Group and former Alberta Party chief of staff, says no.

I asked a friend who is heavily involved in the art and Indigenous communities what he thought about the Grandin LRT station mural. His response struck me as the ideal one when a mob begins making demands: “I can’t say what should be done until I know who painted it, when, and for what reason.” His response is rooted in rationality, because it tells us that both context and intent matter.

I’ll also suggest that we shouldn’t let this debate degenerate into historical and moral “whataboutism.” For every historical figure whose name should be removed from a public institution there’s another whose biography is greatly misunderstood by people clamouring for their removal. For every complex figure celebrated by the right (Sir John A. Macdonald), there’s an equally complex one beloved by the left (Tommy Douglas, who in addition to being the father of medicare was a eugenicist). That debate only serves as a political signal, telling the world what ideological tribe you belong to—it gets us nowhere.

The recent discovery of unmarked graves at residential school sites has jumpstarted a long overdue racial reckoning in this country. It has led to a re-evaluation of the names of many of our public institutions, from schools to bridges, and even of professional football teams. I’m not arguing that some names should stay while some should go, or that all names should stay. Instead, we should resist renaming public institutions not because of the pros and cons of specific historical figures but because an inclination to tear it all down is inherently divisive.

If we nurture this harmful mindset, in which an “enlightened” present casts the past as inherently evil, we put national unity and social cohesion at risk. We are united not just because we happen to all live in this particular place, but because of the historical legacy that created us, which includes even people placed on an unrealistic pedestal. As political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson noted, nations are defined not by borders but by imaginations. Imaginations cannot be animated without unifying myths. And there can be no doubt that right now we are suffering from a crisis of disunity.

Progressives on this issue have clearly won some battles. No one credibly calls for a whitewashed (figuratively or literally) history. We must acknowledge our heroes have flaws. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for myth, a unifying story that inspires us to build up, not tear down. We won’t lose that if we add marginalized voices to the story, but we will if the sentiment of erasure wins. So don’t take names and statues and heroes away—make new ones and weave them into our story.

Canada has done great things and terrible things. If we only focus on the latter, we will never be united enough to achieve better. That is why renaming institutions should be resisted. We need to instill in all of us the idea that construction is better than destruction, and that those who built our society should be remembered as examples, to inspire us all to keep building.

Kristopher Wells responds to Mathew Preston

I agree with Mathew Preston. Knowledge is always under construction, and what we once held as “sacred truths” are now being more fully interrogated and questioned. That’s a good thing. It’s how society advances. At one time in our history, the residential school system was thought by many to be a noble and just cause. Thanks to the courageous voices of survivors, we now know different and hope that past injustices will no longer be repeated in the future. We have learned there can be no reconciliation without truth. No matter how difficult those truths are to hear.

But just as silence favours the oppressor, neutrality maintains the status quo. We need to speak out about not only past injustices but also current inequities. Changing problematic names and removing offensive statues is more than symbolic. These names and images serve as powerful signifiers about whose identities have value and worth in our society. They serve as living testaments to powerful ideologies about white supremacy, gender and sexuality, and in turn demarcate who has and continues to hold power and privilege. For many minorities, these names and symbols continue to serve as very real reminders about the ongoing impacts of prejudice and discrimination in their daily lives.

It’s not about erasure but about constructing a more just and equitable society that benefits everyone.

Calls for removal and renaming are only one part of an interconnected conversation that’s happening across the world. Demands to defund the police, challenges to school curriculum and calls to rename sports teams are not about erasure or deconstruction but the reconstruction of a more just and equitable society that benefits everyone. These debates are about the fundamental values that we aspire to uphold as most important in our society. This is why names and monuments matter so much. They have become a flashpoint for much deeper societal issues.

Traditionalists will argue renaming is an attack on history and, in turn, destabilizes and calls into question our very identity and unity. This premise rests on how we understand history and how we let it define us. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously stated, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Accordingly, in Canada, we must grapple with our own colonial past and the impacts it has on the present. Exactly who is this “us” that we are seeking to unite? The great thing about Canada is not our sameness but our rich diversity. Perhaps our conversations need to shift from “who we are” as a nation to “who we want to become.” How might we understand our past differently and attempt to communicate our legacies in more complex and honest ways? Our goal is not to change the past; it is only to understand how we might more accurately convey the truth about it. This is done through a process of learning and unlearning.

Canada itself is a settler nation that was named from the Huron–Iroquois word “Kanata,” meaning village or settlement. The province of Alberta was named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, without any recognition of the First Nations such as the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikuni (Peigan) and Gros Ventre (now in Montana) who occupied this land for over 500 generations. Every place in Canada once had an Indigenous name, which colonizers ignored, diminished or appropriated. Canada itself has been described as one long (and ongoing) renaming process. So, it is a bit disingenuous and self-serving to now be protesting the current process of renaming or the removal of statues that serve to reinforce long-held colonial narratives.

As University of Ottawa professor Brenda Macdougall notes, debates about renaming in Canada aren’t new. A major shift started in the 1980s as colonial place names in the North were replaced by Indigenous names. In 1987 Frobisher Bay became Iqaluit, which marked a profound change in attitude and increasing recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. To this day few Canadians know about the Arctic renaming project, which also speaks to how little we know about Canada’s North.

The most important questions are: What exactly are we seeking to memorialize and celebrate? And why? Whose stories get to be told? Are these stories and people worth valorizing? History is not only a project of the past but something we live and grapple with in the present. This process is fraught, messy, complex and unending. Perhaps the hardest challenge is to resist our need for certainty and closure. Especially when we are learning there is not just one truth but often multiple and conflicting truths.

Renaming institutions will only be a goodwill gesture (at best a self-congratulatory pat on the back) if it is not followed up with more meaningful and systemic change. This is not the end of a journey, but only the beginning of an awakening.

Mathew Preston responds to Kristopher Wells

Many of the sentiments Kristopher Wells advocates for are unimpeachable: names matter; the stories we tell about ourselves are important; representation is a powerful force; diversity of our communities reflects and signifies the values we celebrate and uphold. The source of our disagreement is how best to reflect these values and how we bring everyone along for the ride.

Names—more specifically, the stories they help us tell—shape who we are. For example, the Canadian peacekeeping myth is not necessarily grounded in historical reality, but it is widely accepted because it appeals to Canadians’ shared values—we want to be the world’s peacekeepers in contrast to America. That many peacekeeping initiatives were undertaken to support Cold War strategy is less important than how it has shaped our self-perception. All stories have elements that are exaggerated for entertaining or moralizing effect—often for both. We do this because we know instinctively that no human being is without flaw.

That’s why wholesale cancellation of the figures behind the names of our public institutions or on statues divides more than it unites. It implies a highly subjective viewpoint that fails to acknowledge the good a particular figure has done. I see Winston Churchill as a reverential figure, but I can simultaneously acknowledge that statements he made and actions he took can be framed as “problematic.” Many of his deeds, however, represent values we should all see as objectively good, such as courage, public service and unshakeable commitment to democracy. Many view Churchill the same way I do, as an example of the good our leaders can inspire, despite the sins they may have committed. If, as Wells rightly contends, reconciliation is a generational process possible only through awareness and education, then people must maintain a disposition that allows for awareness and education. A surefire way to ensure this is not the case is by people debasing or erasing other people’s origin story, which will only entrench attitudes and widen divisions.

Cancelling the figures behind the names of our public institutions or on statues divides more than it unites.

To attempt to reflect the diversity of our community is to aim at a fast-moving target. Our province is changing constantly. New people move here every day from all over the globe. If we are to keep up, the only inclusive way forward is to add, not to take away. Otherwise, the name we replace a figure like Grandin with today will likely have to be replaced again in the future. Constantly renaming our public institutions in such a fashion unmoors us from our heritage and our history. Better to keep adding, rather than replacing.

Wells writes that “removing monuments or renaming schools or other public institutions is one of the easiest changes [emphasis mine] we can make in the spirit of reconciliation.” Doing the easy things, however, makes it all too effortless for people in positions to achieve meaningful change to absolve themselves of concrete action. Renaming a building does nothing of substance, but it does create a divisive electoral wedge issue. For progressives, it shows that there are troglodytes unwilling to reckon with a racist past. For conservatives, they can tell their supporters that they are destroying your history. Both get to use the issues to raise cash and motivate voters. In neither case does it lead to real change.

This over-caffeinated culture war makes substantive action even harder, politicizing too many basic issues, such as the need for clean water, safe housing and good jobs. Some people may see renaming as creating a more inclusive environment and reflecting the diversity of our communities, but is it inclusive to scrape a name off a sign, or is it reductive? Does it reflect diversity to create a smaller pool of honourees? Or does this just replace one element of our diverse population with another? And doesn’t that just build animosity, not community?

We have plenty of opportunities to add to our province’s rich history, which is reflected in the names of many of our public institutions. Naming council wards in Edmonton to reflect the Indigenous people of the area is a perfect example. No group lost, and our community, as a whole, won. These are the naming discussions we should be having, not a zero-sum fight to replace one people’s heroes with another’s.

To quote Wells, “representation is a powerful force.” While that is undeniable, my contention remains that we can have diverse representation of our community, past and present, without divisively tearing anything down. Our diverse society celebrates many universal values; values that don’t see race or religion, only humanity. Meanwhile humanity is far from perfect, as are any humans we choose to honour. Better, then, to include more of them than engage in a process of replacing one imperfect person after another.


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