Outrage over residential schools spurs renewed calls to rename Winnipeg's Bishop Grandin Boulevard

The City of Winnipeg is facing growing calls to rename Bishop Grandin Boulevard in the wake of renewed outrage over the lasting harm caused by Canada’s residential schools.

The Catholic prelate was a prominent proponent of the residential school system

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a proponent of the residential school system in Canada. (Manitoba Historical Society)

The City of Winnipeg is facing growing calls to rename Bishop Grandin Boulevard in the wake of renewed outrage over the lasting harm caused by Canada's residential schools.

Last week, the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia said the remains of 215 children had been found on the grounds at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

On Sunday, Swampy Cree author David A. Robertson tweeted at Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, calling for the street to be renamed in light of its connection with one of the architects of the residential system.

"Something like this is a sobering reality. It's also an opportunity to educate ourselves and learn about the history in a way that we never really understood it before," Robertson said in an interview on CBC Manitoba's afternoon radio show Up To Speed.

"I don't think that we should have these things in place that honour people that were responsible for the deaths of thousands of children. It makes me sick." 

This is the current plaque that marks the creation of Bishop Grandin Boulevard, which was named after the famous Roman Catholic priest and bishop in 1978. (Submitted)

In the late 1800s, Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin lobbied the federal government to fund the construction of these schools, which saw children torn from their families and stripped of their identities in what has been decried as a cultural genocide.

At least 4,100 Indigenous children are listed as having died at residential schools from the date the first ones opened in the 1870s until the last one closed in 1996.

Robertson's tweet included a quote from Grandin stating that the goal of the schools was to "instill in [the children] a profound distaste for native life that they should feel humiliated when reminded of their origin.

"When they graduate from our institutions, the children have lost everything Native except their blood." 

Revisit name

Bowman posted a statement on Twitter Monday saying he believes it is time for the city to reconsider the name.

"The name is definitely, you know — controversial would be an understatement, and our Welcoming Winnipeg committee, which we've recently created, is looking at the name as it relates to historical markers," Bowman said Tuesday in an interview on CBC Manitoba's morning radio show Information Radio.

The committee was established in January 2020 to advise the city on requests to rename historical markers and place names.

In 2018, the city received requests to strip Bishop Grandin Boulevard of its name. At the time, St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes said he favoured a commemorative plaque detailing Grandin's troubling legacy. 

The city's executive policy committee voted on April 21 to direct the public service to report back on a process for installing a historical marker. 

At that meeting, Bowman said he was surprised that consultations on the matter hadn't drawn out more calls for the street to be renamed.

"We see those polarizing debates happening in other communities, and what we heard back overwhelmingly from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that were surveyed was a desire for education, a desire for just better markation [sic] of historical facts of the land that we all share now," he said.

The Welcoming Winnipeg committee will consider the request for the historical marker at a meeting in June. 

"At this time, the renaming of streets is not part of the Welcoming Winnipeg Policy, but is captured in the Street Names By-Law," the City of Winnipeg said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Bowman said the street name is important as a symbol.

"I grew up in Winnipeg and ... I've gone down Bishop Grandin, you know, thousands of times and have not known who it was named after," he said.

"There's also many, including survivors of residential schools, who know exactly who that person is. And it hurts to think about what they must think when they go down that street or hear the name."

That's true for Reanna Merasty, who is the chair of the city's Welcoming Winnipeg committee. Her parents went to day schools and grandparents are survivors of residential schools in northern Manitoba.

She believes the street should be renamed.

"It's just a constant reminder of the harm, it's a constant reminder of the hurt and the pain of what Indigenous people have been put through," she said.

"It's very much affecting like our lives as Indigenous people, and what I really hope in this name change is that we're able to contribute to making Indigenous people in the city feel safe and comfortable on their own lands."

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called for the Calgary Catholic School District to find a new name for a high school named after the bishop.

Arlen Dumas, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, says the name must be changed.

"Keep in mind that these institutions were government-funded — children were taken away from their homes at gunpoint," he said.

"And then they were also coerced through various religious organizations, that their children would be well looked after, and no one ever prescribed to having their children murdered in these institutions."

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Leif Larsen, Faith Fundal and Cameron MacLean