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The right way to rename?

With the  process under way in Oliver, one hope is
that rebranding will honour Cree culture

The process of renaming the Oliver neighbourhood has been long and involved. (Aubrianna Snow)

By Aubrianna Snow

THE OLIVER name-change project seeks to address a complex history directly, but the process itself is proving somewhat complicated. 

Emily Riddle is a Nehiyaw (Cree) woman, advocate and writer, who lives in the neighbourhood, and has been vocal about the need to stop honouring Frank Oliver. Riddle was also involved in iyiniw iskwewak wihtwâwin (Indigenous Women’s Action/Movement), the city’s ward-naming committee that sought Indigenous names for the wards through ceremony and consultation with elders. 

Council approved the ward names in December of 2020. 

“The power of the ward naming is that it was done with our own (Indigenous) processes and wasn’t just … a product,” Riddle says. “It was processes that were enabled and empowered within the municipal system.”

Much of the initial advocacy for the name change came directly from the community, specifically Indigenous and Black community members. However, the community league-centred renaming process has presented a long and complex journey in consultation and policy, as this name change is the first of its kind for the city.

Oliver is known for his work as a federal minister and as the founder of the long-defunct daily newspaper the Edmonton Bulletin. He was also instrumental in removing Treaty Six Indigenous peoples from their land, and in making Canadian immigration policy more restrictive.

“It’s always been about education first and community first,” says Robyn Paches, the president of the Oliver Community League.

Frank Oliver’s historical legacy is marred by his attitude towards Indigenous people. (Edmonton City Archives)

Riddle argues that practices around such renaming and related municipal processes should be more transparent and culturally informed.

“I’m not certain that community leagues are the right vehicle for this change. Community leagues have a certain entrenched power in a community that’s really led by non-Indigenous people, non-Black people, largely white settlers.”

She advocates for a fundamental shift in our understanding of what names are, what they mean in relational terms, and on the kinds of processes and systems that were perpetuated by people like Frank Oliver.

“We really have to work on a process with the city that takes into account the Indigenous framework and other policy pieces that really allow these processes to be Indigenous led,” Riddle says. “And Indigenous led, meaning not just that there’s Indigenous people working on the processes but that the processes in which things are named are Indigenous processes.”

Paches expressed that the name change was a very small “piece of the pie towards proper reconciliation and developing nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous folks.”

Although the change will be a small gesture, which Riddle calls “low-hanging fruit,” it will at least mean a small difference to those living with the direct negative impact of Frank Oliver’s legacy.

“There’s so much power in rejecting seeing those kinds of names every day,” she says. “I live in the neighbourhood known as Oliver. I see the name every day on all these apartments I walk past.

“I think about how elders in my life talk about experiencing culture shock every time we leave our house, which is particularly violent because it’s on our own territory. I think just not having to see these names would mean a lot to a lot of people.”

Paches says he expects a new name to be brought forward through the work of Heartstage Consulting within this calendar year. 

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