Writing a new story
Learning from Edmonton’s colonial past
could help shape a brighter future
By Mariann Roberts
WHAT type of person is worthy of having a monument, park, or community named in their honour?
Is it a pioneer settler of Edmonton, who heavily pushed for the city to become Alberta’s capital over Calgary? Is it a federal minister? Maybe you’re thinking of a journalist or the founder of Edmonton’s first newspaper – the Edmonton Bulletin.
But what if that pioneer said Chinese people “live like pigs,” and wrote that the Japanese “are not our people, they do not belong to our civilization, they do not strengthen our country”? Or if that politician drafted an order that banned “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race” from entering Canada, according to the Edmonton Journal?
What if that journalist and newspaper founder used his editorials to lobby for the removal of rights of Indigenous peoples?
What about if that federal minister, who was the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, created an act that “allowed Aboriginal people living on a reserve next to a town of eight thousand or more people to be removed without consent.”
Most people wouldn’t think to name a community, a school, a pool, or a landmark after someone with that kind of track record. However, the community of Oliver in downtown Edmonton is named in honour of Francis “Frank” Oliver; the man described above.
To be frank (no pun intended), Oliver was a racist.
Given his past, it makes sense why there has been much debate in the city over whether monuments and areas such as Oliver should be renamed. But would painting over history erase its scars?
Paula Simons is a Canadian senator and former journalist for the Edmonton Journal who wrote the article linked above.
“I grew up in a city that lionized Frank Oliver,” Simons says. “His memorials were everywhere. My first apartment was even in the neighbourhood named after him. It was only later that I learned that he was a racist, a bigot, and something of a crook.”
However, if you read her opinion piece on the subject (and I highly suggest you do), you’ll realize that Simons doesn’t believe putting a Band-Aid over a name will heal the wounds of the past or create a stronger future.
“I don’t think erasing his name, making him an un-person, is the right way to deal with his legacy,” Simons adds. “We can’t just Photoshop the racism out of our history. We need to acknowledge and confront it instead – even if that’s difficult and uncomfortable.”
If we’re going to confront that racism, we need to understand it. If we’re going to understand it, we need to start a conversation with those who were, and still are impacted by it.
Dwayne Donald is an Associate Professor with the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education who focuses on curriculum studies and Indigenous wisdom traditions. He is of Papaschase ancestry and the author of the journal article “Edmonton Pentimento: Re-Reading History in the Case of the Papaschase Cree.”
The Papaschase First Nation – a group of Cree people – signed the Treaty 6 agreement in 1877. However, under the advocacy of Oliver, the band was removed from its land and forced to join other First Nations communities, until the all their land was sold by the government.
It was only in late 2018 that the band was formally recognized as a member of the Assembly of First Nations.
Donald’s interest in Oliver grew from wanting to learn about what had happened to his Papaschase ancestors, and to understand the structure of colonialism at play.
As we sit in his office at the University of Alberta, Donald pulls out a stack of photocopied papers and hands them to me, an article by Oliver, published in Queen’s Quarterly in 1929. It was titled “The Indian Drum: An Incident In The Rebellion of 1885,” and it stirred irrational fear of Indigenous people in Edmonton.
Written in first-person, the piece details how Oliver spent his first nine years in Edmonton within earshot of the “North American Indian” drumming long into the night.
(To give some insight into Oliver’s views, he assigns the entire first two paragraphs to belittling the Indigenous drum and its music.)
In it, Oliver quotes a man by the name of Ed Carey: “When the Indians go to war the first thing they do is to put their families in safety at a distance from the scene of action. If the Indians meant mischief now, the tents would not be in town. So long as you hear the drum, there can be no danger.”
You can imagine the panic and irrationality among Edmontonians after the “tents” disappeared one morning, when the band left to attend a conference with other Indigenous groups.
However, what was found in Edmonton was peace, not the war the settlers anticipated.
Oliver writes that the “Indians vied with each other in expressions of good will towards the whites and the Government. None of them had wanted was – so they said. ”
Writing features wasn’t the only way Oliver promoted prejudice through media.
In his newspaper, the Edmonton Bulletin, Oliver advocated for the Papaschase band to give up their land, their rights, and their identity. As Donald says, his view was that “the government has to decide if this land is going to be for the Indians or for the settlers.”
To emphasize his point, Donald drops a few faded, but legible photocopies of the Bulletin on a small, circular table.
He explains that Oliver pushed two main agendas in his editorials: The Papaschase band were “illegitimate Indians,” and “the Indians didn’t use the land properly. The land is too valuable to only be used by them or that the reserve was going to be in the way of the growth of the city,” Donald says.
“Two things [were] involved there. The sort of racism, like a dismissal of these people as inferior. And also this sort of claim on the land and how it should be used, which is very much part of that liberal philosophy that was kind of flowing at the time.”
Should Oliver’s name to be eradicated from the city –just as Oliver eradicated the Papaschase band?
You would think Donald would be, at the very least, slightly resentful towards Oliver and his legacy.
But he isn’t.
“I actually don’t think it’s very helpful to villainize him,” Donald says. “Understand the era in which Oliver was at work. He was an elected official, and he was doing a lot of things the people here supported.
“It’s definitely racism, but I also think it’s more complex than that.”
Donald says the work of Oliver – and others like him – was more than just one man on a racist mission. Oliver was a part of a normalized colonial structure at the time. His contribution was fuel added to a much larger fire.
“Colonialism is a structure, not just an event, and it’s about relationship denial at its heart,” Donald adds. “I would say that the sort of growth of a settler-colonial society – and all the sort of ideologies and philosophies that fuelled it, you know – this was a wave that Oliver kind of rode. And it was used to justify a lot of things, including the dispossession of Indigenous people.”
Oliver isn’t the only example of his time. As the Edmonton Journal pointed out, Sir John A. Macdonald, Bishop Vital Grandin and Nellie McClung are just a few examples of other monument-honoured individuals whose past achievements are intertwined with dark, overarching narratives.
It makes sense that there has been controversy and debate over changing or removing monuments of these people. However, maybe we haven’t been asking the right question.
Perhaps the question isn’t whether we should bury a part of our past. Perhaps the question is how we can take our darkest, most horrific moments in history and use them to create a brighter future.
“Maybe there would be some way to not cover over that history,” Donald says, “but also have a new understanding that comes along. That’s what I’d be in favour of. We can have some kind of balance, sort of like what Aaron did with the mural.”
Donald is referring to Aaron Paquette, an Indigenous artist who helped reconcile the mural in the Grandin LRT Station. The mural, named after Bishop Vital Grandin, appeared to give praise to residential schools, as Grandin (who helped build residential schools) is painted standing beside a nun as she takes an Indigenous child away in her arms.
Instead of tearing it down, Paquette worked with its original artist, Sylvie Nadeau, to find a different solution. They painted two new murals on each side of the original as a means of opening up conversations about the city’s past.
“We need a new story,” Donald says. “I think most of the people that I encounter, they recognize that most of what they may have learned in school, or what they’ve heard about, is inadequate. There’s a lot that got left out. But the problem is, we don’t know what the new story is supposed to be.”
Donald explains that, though a lot of people, particularly teachers, know something of what happened to Indigenous people, they aren’t sure how to continue the conversation once that story has been told.
Aubrianna Snow is a MacEwan colleague, a Mi’kmaw and an advocate for Indigenous rights. She believes the new story begins by creating space for the voices that need to be heard.
“Uplift Indigenous voices. I think, at the end of the day, for true reconciliation to happen, Indigenous voices need to be centred on issues that impact Indigenous people.”
Like Simons and Donald, Snow says the key to moving forward isn’t removal or denial, but balance.
“I think there is a middle ground. As we work toward reconciliation and equality for Indigenous peoples, we absolutely have to acknowledge that history.”
As with the Grandin Station mural, Snow says an appropriate course of action may be to keep the monuments as is, to remember each person’s role in history, but to add a plaque that shares their role in colonialism.
“Kind of hold space for both of those truths.”
So, maybe we stop asking whether to tear down the monuments and start asking how we move forward, stop debating Oliver and others like him and start acknowledging that sometimes bad people do good things, and good people do bad things. The key thing is to learn from the bad and figure out how not to repeat it. To try to be better.
“The real work is trying to heal and repair,”Donald says. “And try to figure out how to do things differently.”