Winnipeg mayor pledges to support Bishop Grandin renaming at city council

"It’s time" for the expressway’s name to change, Mayor Brian Bowman said in a series of tweets Friday, adding he plans to introduce a motion at city council next week supporting the idea.

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin lobbied federal government to create residential schools in late 1800s

Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin was a proponent of the residential school system in Canada. Calls have been growing to see a Winnipeg expressway named after him renamed. (Manitoba Historical Society)

Winnipeg's mayor set the stage Friday for the potential renaming of Bishop Grandin Boulevard.

In a series of tweets, Brian Bowman said it's time for the expressway's name to change.

He said he plans to introduce a motion at city council next week calling for it to support the renaming and will solicit feedback from Indigenous people and groups.

Asked to clarify why he plans to table a motion asking council for its support of the renaming, rather than bring forward a motion to simply rename the street, Bowman's spokesman said the mayor wants to give Indigenous Peoples a chance to recommend a new name for council's consideration. 

"The motion starts that process, which has never been done before," Jeremy Davis said in an email Friday afternoon.

Calls to rename the road have been building in the city, prompted by renewed outrage over the lasting harm caused by residential schools.

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

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates, based on death records, at least 4,100 children died at the schools, which began operating in the 1870s and continued into the 1990s. The true total is likely much higher, the Winnipeg-based centre says.

Edmonton city council voted unanimously this week to remove all references to Grandin in that city, including renaming a downtown light rail transit station that bears his name and covering a controversial mural there.

Calgary's Catholic School District said it hopes to make a decision by the end of the month about possibly renaming its Bishop Grandin High School.

Bowman said his motion will ask the City of Winnipeg's Indigenous relations division to consult a wide range of Indigenous people and entities — including residential school survivors, knowledge keepers and community organizations — for their proposals on a name for the expressway "that honours Indigenous experience, culture and history." 

Bowman's idea swiftly drew public support from councillors such as acting deputy mayor Vivian Santos (Point Douglas) and others — including a Winnipeg-based Swampy Cree author who publicly called on Bowman for the name change late last month.

In an interview Friday, David Robertson said he was encouraged by Bowman's stated plans. 

"We can't be honouring, memorializing, people who were responsible for the genocide of Indigenous people," Robertson said. 

He added he understood it may take a while before the name change ever happens due to bureaucratic hurdles — but Bowman is showing he takes the issue seriously. 

Robertson said he'd like to see the roadway renamed after someone reflective of the context of reconciliation, such as a residential school survivor. He specifically mentioned former Sagkeeng First Nation chief Theodore (Ted) Fontaine, who died in May at age 79. 

Fontaine was a residential school survivor who went on to write and speak about the abuse he suffered and his journey of healing and recovery. Upon his death, friends and relatives described Fontaine as beloved, saying he helped many people. 

"These are the people we need to honour," said Robertson. "People who do good in this world."