'Things have to change': Indigenous leader, activist call for Edmonton to drop Oliver name

A rally set for Saturday to protest the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., will also demand the removal of a downtown Edmonton namesake — something an Edmonton-area First Nation has been calling for for years.

Frank Oliver drafted legislation to take traditional lands from Indigenous people in the Edmonton area

Frank Oliver, whose name was lent to an Edmonton neighbourhood, had a history of drafting legislation to push Indigenous people off traditional land. From City Museum Edmonton: Frank Oliver and Infantile Edmonton -- https://citymuseumedmonton.ca/2015/11/02/frank-oliver/ (Provincial Archives of Alberta via citymuseumedmonton.ca)

A rally set for Saturday to protest the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., will also demand the removal of a downtown Edmonton namesake — something an Edmonton-area First Nation has been calling for for years.

Part of the event will focus on Frank Oliver, a 1900s-era Edmonton MP whose policies were instrumental in pushing Indigenous people off their traditional lands in the Edmonton area.

The rally, called "End Racism in Canada: A Response to Charlottesville," will take place at the Alberta legislature — just blocks from the Oliver neighbourhood and from the plaque and pedway named after Oliver in the Hotel Macdonald courtyard.

The Frank Oliver plaque in the Hotel Macdonald courtyard. The Frank Oliver Tunnel, a pedway, is adjacent to it. (Kyle Muzyka/CBC)

The Papaschase Cree Nation is one of the First Nations in the Edmonton area that was affected by Oliver's policies. Chief Calvin Bruneau said it's time to remove the name from the neighbourhood and its landmarks — which include a school, apartment buildings and signage — and to remove the plaque.

"We're not too pleased that there are neighbourhoods and buildings that carry that name," Bruneau said Thursday. "He was part of the genocidal practice by government."

Frank Oliver is also known for starting the Edmonton Bulletin, the city's first newspaper.

Though he became an independent federal MP in 1896, he was closely aligned with the federal Liberals in power at the time. Oliver was named Minister of the Interior and the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs under the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Shannon Stunden Bower, who teaches Canadian history at the University of Alberta, said Oliver's ideal Canadian civilization didn't involve immigrants or Indigenous people.

"He was absolutely in favour of a heavily racialized immigration policy," Stunden Bower said. "He favoured a vision of the emerging nation of Canada as white — meaning British."

Oliver, second from the right in the front row, leads a march through Edmonton in this undated photo. (Provincial Archives of Alberta via citymuseumedmonton.ca)

Stunden Bower said Oliver pushed for what was historically termed "reserve surrender," or, as she explained it, "coercive attempts to force Indigenous peoples to move away from lands — not only traditional lands, but lands they had been accorded under treaty."

Oliver, in his role as interior minister, developed and supported legislation to force Indigenous people, like the Papaschase Cree, off their traditional lands.

Stunden Bower said the federal government paid the First Nations for the land, but they paid them "what even at the time was seen as terribly inadequate monetary compensation for this surrender." She said there is also evidence Oliver benefited financially from the resale of Indigenous lands the federal government had acquired.

The Edmonton neighbourhood was named Oliver in the 1950s, and has spurred multiple other namesakes, including Oliver Square, a nearby shopping centre.

'We can have that name in museums'

Bruneau said he wasn't taught the history of how his band was treated by Oliver and the federal government when he was younger. But once he was taught, imagining the pain of his ancestors was something he couldn't stand. He said he wouldn't even drive near the Oliver neighbourhood for a while.

Chief Calvin Bruneau, seen here in a 2013 photo at an Idle No More protest, says it's time to change the Oliver name. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Marisa Peters, who is helping organize Saturday's rally, said others have been calling for the removal of the Oliver name for years — she's just hoping to help amplify their voices.

"It's always been important for that name not to have been honoured," Peters said Thursday.

"You can't erase history, but removing the name is important. We can have that name in museums."

She said the City of Edmonton has a history of focusing only on the good things its historical figures have done — and sweeping the rest under the rug.

"A lot of us don't know about [the negative side] except for the people who were actually affected," Peters said.

City responds

The City of Edmonton has not committed to the removal of the plaque or any of the Oliver namesakes.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Leanne McCarthy, the deputy city manager of urban form, said the city's naming committee has renamed roads but never renamed a whole neighbourhood.

"This is an emotional and complex issue that many municipalities and institutions are currently examining," she said, adding the city's discussion should be "broad-based and inclusive."

Bruneau said he understands the issue is complex, but that answer doesn't mean much to him.

"That's nothing compared to the cost and the toll it took on our people," he said. "Things have to change."