Why renaming Ottawa's Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway matters to Albert Dumont

The Anishinaabe spiritual adviser and city's poet laureate makes the case for reclamation.

Anishinaabe spiritual adviser, city's poet laureate makes case for reclamation

Anishinaabe spiritual adviser and Ottawa's English-language poet laureate Albert Dumont is co-author of a petition to remove Sir John A. Macdonald's name from the parkway. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

The call is growing to remove the name of Canada's first prime minister from Ottawa's Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, and one of the leading voices says it's time for Canadians to listen.

Formerly known as the Ottawa River Parkway before it was renamed in 2012, the four-lane parkway stretches west from Ottawa's downtown, hugging the Ottawa River shoreline.

Albert Dumont, an Algonquin Anishinaabe spiritual adviser from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg near Maniwaki, Que., is co-author of a petition demanding the parkway be renamed because of Macdonald's role in centralizing and expanding Canada's residential school system.

"For me, it makes a huge difference. That river right there is who we are as a people, the Algonquins. It's part of our identity. If the parkway is going to run here, it's the right thing to do to call it either the Algonquin Parkway or the Kichi Zibi Parkway," said Dumont. Kichi Zibi was the original Anishinaabe name for the Ottawa River.

Dumont gave specific permission for this photograph to be taken of him offering tobacco in a private ceremony on the shores of the Ottawa River. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

As of Tuesday, more than 3,000 people had signed the petition.

Whenever he hears Macdonald's name, "a feeling of oppression enters my mind. I think of a human being who had a cruel heart," Dumont said. "He came here as an immigrant and he did very well for himself in Canada, but it was at the cost of thousands of children's lives."

Dumont is also Ottawa's English-language poet laureate, and has used that artform to express his grief and anger at the treatment of Indigenous people. He has written powerful poems about Macdonald's legacy, and about the children who suffered and died at residential schools. 

Dumont describes this ailing pine tree as a metaphor for Sir John A. Macdonald and his intentions. 'That's what he would have wanted for the Indigenous people. To be a tree ... that's lost its beauty and that is dying.' (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Dumont points to an ailing pine tree that's growing between Remic Rapids and the parkway. 

"It's a dying tree. The top part of it …is almost dead. But there's still some green needles left. And John A. Macdonald — who was knighted by Britain because of his extermination policies here in the colony — that's what he would have wanted for the Indigenous people. To be a tree like that ... that's lost its beauty and that is dying."

Dumont believes the metaphor of the tree — and its remaining greenery — extends to the current fight by Indigenous people for their rights, justice and future. 

"The First Nations have the ability to bring in rich topsoil, to get proper water and proper nourishment from the sun ... so that the tree could come back to life," he said.

'The First Nations have the ability to bring in rich topsoil, to get proper water and proper nourishment from the sun ... so that the tree could come back to life,' Dumont said. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Last week, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said he disagrees with the growing movement to remove statues of Macdonald, but rather wants them placed in context to spark important, albeit difficult conversations.

"I think he doesn't get it," said Dumont. "What he needs to understand is how wrong it is to honour somebody who has killed children."

Dumont said he would accept the addition of plaques explaining Macdonald's role in residential schools on any physical structure or object bearing his name. 

But he's adamant the parkway be reclaimed. Several city councillors are calling for an Indigenous-led process to rename the parkway as soon as possible.

"If the name Sir John A Macdonald is moved from this parkway, it's still in lots of places. It's not being erased. I don't want all the statues and portraits to be removed," said Dumont.

"It would be nice, though, if it was removed from the parkway. And if there was a plaque on Parliament Hill, where that big statue of his is? That would be looked at as something great for me, as a human rights activist and as an Algonquin and as a human being."

CBC invited NCC CEO Tobi Nussbaum to comment on the petition but he declined. Instead, the NCC provided this statement: "Earlier this year, the NCC initiated steps toward a comprehensive framework for Indigenous partnerships that will include a principles-based approach to naming and re-naming NCC assets in the spirit of reconciliation. We will engage our Algonquin Partners in this exercise to foster an honest understanding and interpretation of the history of the National Capital Region."