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Elders laud new Abinojii Mikanah name at official ceremony on National Indigenous Peoples Day

A busy expressway, a trail and a side street in Winnipeg that for years bore the name of a former residential school proponent have officially been given new names that honour the experiences of children who attended those schools.

The new names for what were previously called Bishop Grandin Boulevard, Bishop Grandin Trail and Grandin Street were officially recognized by Winnipeg city council at a ceremony in Jules H. Mager Park, just off the trail, on Friday, coinciding with National Indigenous Peoples Day.

“We’re committed to doing what we can to advance reconciliation and honour the truths that have been denied or ignored for too long,” said Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham, flanked by councillors Sherri Rollins, Matt Allard, Janice Lukes, Brian Mayes and Vivian Santos.

“[The new names] reflect the rich history and culture of Indigenous peoples and the reclaiming of Indigenous language.”

A group of six people standing on a stage behind a lectern.
Mayor Scott Gillingham, centre, flanked by councillors Sherri Rollins, Matt Allard, Janice Lukes, Brian Mayes and Vivian Santos at the official renaming ceremony on Friday. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Bishop Grandin Boulevard is now called Abinojii Mikanah, which translates to “the children’s way/road” in Anishinaabemowin.

Bishop Grandin Trail received the name Awasisak Mēskanôw — “the children’s road” in Ininimowin, or Cree. Grandin Street, which runs for a single block from Taché Avenue to St. Joseph Street in the north St. Boniface area, is now Taapweewin, which means “truth” in Michif.

The man they were previously named after, Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, pushed the federal government to finance the construction of residential schools in the late 1800s. That system, which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada labelled a “cultural genocide,” saw children removed from their families, stripped of their communities and deprived of their Indigenous identities.

Former mayor Brian Bowman pledged to support renaming Winnipeg’s Bishop Grandin Boulevard following calls from the community. In June 2021, the city’s executive policy committee voted to change the name.

A street sign next to a traffic signal reads "Abinojii Mikanah."
City of Winnipeg public works crews installed the first official signs for Abinojii Mikanah at the intersection of St. Mary’s Road in May, more than a year after council voted to change the name of Bishop Grandin Boulevard. On Friday, the city and Indigenous groups and elders officially marked the renaming at a ceremony in Winnipeg. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

The city solicited feedback from Indigenous people and groups and members of the city’s Committee of Community Members to come up with new names honouring Indigenous culture.

The city’s Indigenous relations division invited representatives from Indigenous governments and community-based organizations to form an Indigenous knowledge naming circle.

In March of 2023, city council endorsed the renamings and in April this year, council formally approved the changes.

The first Abinojii Mikanah signs went up last month.

Elders who helped in the naming process, including Betty Ross, Frank Beaulieu and Joan Winning, attended the ceremony on Friday.

Three people standing on a stage in front of a lectern
Elders Joan Winning, left, Frank Beaulieu, centre, and Betty Ross helped in the naming process. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Ross, from Pimicikamak First Nation, recalled the “trauma after trauma” of going through four different residential schools growing up.

“They told me, ‘You hush up, your language is filthy, you don’t matter,'” she said.

Ross said the new names are meant to signify the power and sacredness of first languages and serve as a means of revitalizing Indigenous voices.

Elder Dennis White Bird, a former Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs grand chief, said that the spirit name given to him shortly after birth — White Thunderbird — was changed by an Indian agent. White Bird, the name of his great-grandfather, was recorded in its place, he said.

A man in a white-brimmed hat and orange shirt speaks into a microphone.
Elder Dennis White Bird, a former Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs grand chief, speaks at the Abinojii Mikanah naming ceremony. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

“The Indian agent said, ‘There’s no such thing as a white thunderbird, you’ll be White Bird,'” he said at the renaming event.

“That’s a little history as to what happened in terms of name changes, and the name change I suppose was meant to … control the people.”

Jennifer Wood, the intergovernmental and community relations liaison with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, is a third-generation residential school survivor.

“We’re at a pivotal time in our history,” said Wood, from Neyaashiinigmiing First Nation in Ontario. “Everyone is looking at truth now.… It’s about naming the main arteries in our cities under the First Nations name, and I think it’s going to resonate across Canada.”

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin.
Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a proponent of the residential school system in Canada. In 2021, then mayor Brian Bowman pledged to support renaming Winnipeg’s Bishop Grandin Boulevard. (Manitoba Historical Society)

Andrew Carrier, the Manitoba Métis Federation’s vice-president for the Winnipeg region, said the renaming ceremony was part of reclaiming history.

“The Michif language … was born here,” he said. “We were in a dark age, but we have emerged and the future is so bright.”

Chief Trevor Prince of Sandy Bay Ojibway Nation said the impacts of suppressing First Nations culture and identity live on for families.

“There was a time where our people got punished for speaking the language, and there’s people that raise kids not teaching them the language because of the fear of what happened to them in residential school,” he said.

“Today, we’re renaming one of the biggest streets in Winnipeg, and to me I am very, very proud that it’s being renamed to something in our language.”

Gillingham said the renaming is “more than a symbolic gesture.”

“It is a step, an important step, for our entire community, our city, our province, our nation, toward reconciliation, acknowledging past injustices and honouring the resilience and strength of Indigenous communities,” he said.

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