Bridges of reconciliation - literally

This week, Calgary city council will vote to name one of its downtown bridges Reconciliation Bridge, in honour of the Truth and Reconciliation process. Leon Thompson, a nehiyaw (Cree) law student in Saskatoon, hopes it's just the first reconciliation bridge — literally and figuratively.
Saskatoon's Traffic Bridge is being rebuilt. Leon Thompson says the new bridge should have a new name: Truth and Reconciliation Bridge. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

If bridges are named in honour of the Truth and Reconciliation process, they could bridge history, as well as land. 

That's the idea behind the new name for one Calgary bridge, and it's an idea a Saskatoon man hopes to see in his city soon too. 

Calgary's Langevin Bridge was built in 1910, and named for a Father of Confederation, and residential school organizer, Hector-Louis Langevin. (Glenbow Archives)

In Calgary, council will vote on Monday to change the name of Langevin Bridge to Reconciliation Bridge. Hector-Louis Langevin was a Father of Confederation, but he also played a key role in establishing the residential school system. 

Mayor Naheed Nenshi says the original name will not be forgotten: "There'll be plaques that will actually talk about the history of the bridge, that will talk about Mr. Langevin and the good things he did and why the bridge was named after him for so long."

Soon, the Langevin Bridge will be renamed the Reconciliation Bridge. (Qyd via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Leon Thompson has a similar idea for Saskatoon

There, the city's downtown Traffic Bridge (yes, that's the name), is being rebuilt. Thompson says it's a great opportunity to change the name.

"I can see, you know, 10, 20 years down the line, this is going to be one of the hubs of Saskatoon, one of the meeting areas. It's going to be a rich area of culture... and I think with so many people walking around in the heart of Saskatoon, we could use the bridge as a teaching tool."

Thompson says it's as important to address the Truth as it is the Reconciliation, and both could be done with the help of a bridge. 

The following excerpt is an edited version of Leon Thompson's conversation with The 180 guest host Michelle Eliot. 

Canadians across the country have a daily relationship with their bridges. They're often driving over them, or are stuck in traffic on them, but I don't think they tend to ponder what the names really mean. So why would Reconciliation Bridge be different? 

I think that, when we engage with structures for so long, their names become as common as a chair in a room, that you never sit in. You know it's there, and you can't ignore it, but you don't have to engage with it. 

I think that this is something that can be a very strong passive teaching tool, because we're not telling anybody to go down to the bridge...demanding that they read every sign, and then think about how that affects their lives. If they want to do that, that's great, but I think that may be, um, a little too forceful. 

I'd rather have people who, didn't intend to learn about it, stumble upon it as they walk downtown, to read some of the plaques, and then to think on it by themselves, without any pressure, or without any concern that they'll be judged for what they think. I want this to be something that can take somebody from standing on a river bank, and I want it to take them back, you know, 60, 100 years. I want them to think about the past and where they are because of it. I don't want to have to push this in everyone's face, but...there is sub-standard education when it comes to Indigenous issues in the Canadian context. We don't have classes that engage everybody, and enthrall them, and make them think about their position. 

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a February 1940 archive photo. The discovery of potentially hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools has prompted calls for the release of records. (Library and Archives Canada)

The best thing that we can do at the moment, I would say, in this specific context, is to have a passive teaching tool that will be introduced. Because if there are kids that grow up and read those plaques, those signs that tell the history and the reality of Indigenous people, I don't think they'll be as easy to dismiss it when they're encountering it later on in life. 

But the classrooms are still lacking that education. So how do you transfer that knowledge into the classroom? 

Well perhaps it's the classroom that should be taken to the bridge. 

I know I just said I don't want to have to force people to come down, but I think that as a teaching tool, educators in Saskatoon could use it in a way to provide physical activity for their classroom, as well as having a conversation that is very hard to have. Even adults don't have conversations as bluntly as they could with reference to residential schools. It's an uncomfortable topic. And maybe, having kids visit a real place, a structure, could show them their place in the world, both geographically, and their place as coming after the residential school legacy, what the result was and what we learned from it. 

Educators in Saskatoon could use it in a way to provide physical activity for their classroom, as well as having a conversation that is very hard to have.- Leon Thompson

Why do you think "Reconciliation" is the appropriate name? Why not a prominent First Nations figure? Why not a word in the Cree language?

I think that a word in the Cree language could also be beneficial. I do like to see more Indigenous content in naming places, buildings, and that those can also be used as a teaching tool because many people don't know that "Saskatchewan" is a shortened form of kisiskâciwanisîpiy, and that, even though Saskatchewan is still very hard to spell, that they're speaking a little bit of an Indigenous language, and we could be educating through that.

But I think that, ultimately, what I would like to see is the Truth and Reconciliation Bridge. And the reason is, my father is a residential school survivor, and one of my earliest memories is walking into the bathroom and seeing on his arm a scar, that he received in residential school. And after respecting my age, and telling me how he got it, I felt very happy that the school I went to didn't do things like that to me. And I didn't understand the gravity of the situation until after I got my political studies degree, and knew a great deal more about residential schools. 

Ultimately, what I would like to see is the Truth and Reconciliation Bridge.- Leon Thompson

My father's always said, that before you can get to reconciliation, you must get to the truth. And it's not simply enough to gloss over the realities that were experienced by those children, and it's not enough to simply say "well we've all got a copy of the report, let's talk about how we can fix this," it's about acknowledging the reality, acknowledging the truth, acknowledging the purposes for why we're here, before we can get to the act of reconciliation. 

And how far does renaming structures in our daily lives get to acknowledging the truth? 

It's a small step, but it's a step. It moves us forward, away from where we've been, away from the small steps that were taken to build the residential school system. 

I want to take small, but incremental steps forward, to a world where we light the eighth fire and live together in peace and unity. And that we bring the best parts of ourselves into the other.