City of Winnipeg moves forward on policy for changing potentially offensive names of monuments, places

By | January 14, 2020

A tall weather-beaten monument squeezed in between the Manitoba Museum and the Centennial Concert Hall is one of the memorial structures that Mayor Brian Bowman says he finds particularly offensive — and it’s an example of what he hopes to address with a new policy for renaming historical markers or places in the city.

The slim structure in the museum courtyard is officially called the Volunteer Monument, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.

It was originally erected to honour the members of the 90th Winnipeg Battalion (nicknamed the “Little Black Devils”) killed during the Northwest Resistance — including the decisive Battle of Batoche, where Canadian forces effectively crushed the resistance, prompting the surrender of Métis leader Louis Riel.

“It commemorates the loss of life of everybody but the Métis,” said Bowman. “That one in particular stands out for me.”

The city is now one step closer to dealing with monuments or place names that may be culturally or socially offensive, as the mayor’s executive policy committee voted in favour Tuesday of a new framework for renaming such historical markers or places.

A report on the policy, presented at executive policy committee’s Tuesday meeting, found “too often traditional Indigenous names for land and landmarks were overthrown by names representing settler values that became the standard for cities.”

To address that, the policy outlines a process for considering community applications to rename historical markers — such as plaques, markers and statues — or places, such as City of Winnipeg historic trails, parks and buildings.

The policy, titled Welcoming Winnipeg: Reconciling our History would see an appointed committee review and provide recommendations to executive policy committee and city council for final decisions on applications to change or alter names or markers.

Mayor Brian Bowman wants as much community involvement as possible in how the city commemorates various historical people and events, while avoiding the divisive nature those decisions can create. (CBC )

The committee will be made up of community members, and include 50 per cent Indigenous representation. The committee will also reflect a gender balance and include LGBT persons, the policy says.

Bowman says it was a conversation with the mayor of Halifax — a city which has struggled with its own historical places and spaces — that prompted him to explore how Winnipeg has marked its history and how it could be more reflective of its past.

The debates surrounding a monument in Halifax to Edward Cornwallis, the military officer who founded the city, were “incredibly divisive,” Bowman said, adding he was looking for ways to “mitigate” similar anger in Winnipeg.

“How do we try to at least, before we have those debates, have some dialogue with the community and try to move forward as a community?” Bowman said while speaking to reporters Tuesday. 

The city embarked on several months of consultation and public engagement, the report delivered to EPC says, to produce the framework and the outlines for the naming committee. That committee will review potential changes for “ways to address the absence of Indigenous perspectives and history in the city’s place names and markers,” the report says.

Those consultations found community input was needed throughout the process, which should be politicized as little as possible. Indigenous elders and youth should be included, the report says, and efforts be made “not to try [to] erase history, but to add to existing in order to enhance education and awareness of our collective history.”

If the recommendations approved by executive policy committee Tuesday are voted in by council later this month, the city’s Indigenous Relations Division will be responsible for managing applications for name changes from the community, and will forward them to the committee of community members for review.

When asked how he would change the monument to the survivors of the Battle of Batoche, Bowman declined to give his preference, saying those suggestions would come from the community and the committee appointed to look at them, if the process is passed by council.