Keith Gerein: How Edmonton has remembered its history has been more myth than mirror


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Among the classes I took during my recent eight-month fellowship in Toronto was a course on the history of architecture in Canada.

It was not what I expected. In our first class, instead of going through the intricacies of the Richardson Romanesque style, the professor had us watch the “Joe Canadian” beer commercial from 2000.

For those unfamiliar, the ad features a young white man dressed in jeans and flannel going on an emphatic rant about what does and doesn’t define a Canadian. The speech includes assurances that Joe is not a fur trader or lumberjack, favours peacekeeping over policing, and champions diversity over assimilation.

Much of “the rant” is a rejection of the stereotypes we believe Americans hold about us, while reinforcing the stereotypes we believe about ourselves.

The professor’s aim was to get the class thinking about how we have approached the notion of heritage. The places we have chosen to mark as “historic,” the monuments and statues, the names we bestow on streets, structures and spaces — all of it contributes to a broader story we have bought into about the character of our nation, province and city.


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Myths, it must be said, are useful tools for building collective identity and unity. But they are also necessarily selective and exclusionary, defined by those who hold power.

The danger is that sometimes this cultural cushion gets torn, which is exactly what is playing out across the country right now — the fabric ripped open by the revelation of 215 bodies buried at a former residential school for Indigenous children.

While much of the national conversation has focused on residential school architects Sir. John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson, the local debate has drawn in Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin. Another leading advocate of residential schools. Grandin is remembered in the names of St. Albert neighbourhood, an LRT station near the legislature and various buildings.

(City council voted Monday to rename the station and remove an accompanying mural).

But the discussion won’t, and shouldn’t, stop there.

As an example, consider the name McDougall, which adorns a neighbourhood directly north of Downtown, along with a school. It refers to John. A McDougall, who twice served as Edmonton’s mayor (1897 and 1907), had one term as an MLA, and was a key player in the developing city’s commercial life — largely through a general store he operated with partner Richard Secord.

Thanks to the research of local historians, including Rob Houle and Frank Tough, we also know the partners’ prosperity was derived, in part, from the exploitative practice of scrip trading.


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In basic terms, scrip was a system in which the federal government provided Metis with a voucher that could be redeemed for land or money.

The problem was that the government made it deliberately onerous to redeem the certificates, thereby opening the door for corrupt actors. Speculators would pay $1 per acre for scrip from Metis recipients who did not understand its value, then claim the land and sell it for $5, $10 or even $25 acre, said Houle.

In Secord’s case, he was accused of using coercion and even having a Metis woman impersonated to claim her scrip.

And I could go on with other names, from the Famous Five to Frank Oliver to various European royals and aristocrats. For example, Prince Rupert, Duke of Cumberland, whose names adorn two communities in north side Edmonton, was involved in the African slave trade.

By giving such people parks, schools and statues, we have acknowledged only the aspects of their lives useful to the notion of a civilized, peaceful, diversity-rich heritage that forms a core part of our identity.

Does that mean we should wipe away most of these monikers and monuments, never to be seen again? Could we keep names, but put up plaques offering a more comprehensive history?

Edmontonians have strong opinions on this, and as a columnist, I am supposed to give you mine. Unfortunately, I confess this is an issue that has me at a bit of a loss. The cost of changing names is not irrelevant, while I also worry that erasing such individuals from our presence shields us from the realization that Canadian settlers largely supported their policies.


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That said, a point made by the city’s historian laureate Amber Paquette did resonate.

She said that statues, murals and other public honours likely make a minimal impression on most passersby, but can have a profound triggering effect for those still dealing with the fallout of policies like the residential school system. That isn’t in keeping with reconciliation.

Presenting these individuals’ stories might be better done in a museum or interpretative park where people are in a mindset to learn, but with appropriate warnings outside the exhibits, she said.

Looking ahead, regardless of what is done with existing names and structures, it is apparent to me that we need a reimagining of our conception of heritage.

In practical terms that may mean we no longer name things after people, or we at least exercise much more caution. Perhaps we can rediscover forgotten Indigenous place names, which tend to be plain descriptors of spaces, Houle said.

And most of all, the decisions we make about what history to value must move away from the kind of myth making that can be encapsulated in a 60-second beer commercial. Instead, our efforts must be devoted to capturing the full scope of our checkered history, rather than obscuring it.


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