Northwestern Ontario debates its colonization roads

What’s in a name? Streets meant to celebrate Canadian society now seem in bad taste to some
By Jon Thompson - Published on Sep 22, 2017
Looking onto the Lake of the Woods from Kenora’s Colonization Road. (Jon Thompson/TVO)



THUNDER BAY — Colonization Road in Kenora could be mistaken for a long driveway. It forks off the apartment-lined Nash Street, which connects to the Trans-Canada Highway — known locally as Lakeview Drive — and leads past the docks where the Lake of the Woods cottagers park their boats, before abruptly ending in an apartment block’s parking lot.

Colonization roads, so called because they were built to give settlers access to free plots of land, were constructed across 1,600 kilometres of what is now Ontario and Quebec following the passage of the Public Lands Act in 1853. The Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada hoped that the new settlement opportunities they made possible would reduce emigration to the United States.

Most have since been renamed, but Colonization Roads are still to be found in some northern Ontario municipalities — and for many residents, they represent a significant obstacle to reconciliation.

In May, citizens of Kenora requested that the street’s name be changed, but city council held no substantive debate. Although the administration advised renaming it “Reconciliation Road,” council decided simply to treat it as an extension of Nash Street.  

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“To name 50 yards of road after the reconciliation process seemed odd when there are no addresses on that street,” says Kenora councillor Mort Goss. “It was a short road that was going nowhere. It seemed a strikingly bad omen for reconciliation.”

Two hundred kilometres south in Fort Frances — where Rainy Lake meets Rainy River — a similar road has sparked a wider discussion of colonialism’s legacy.   

Built in 1885, Fort Frances’ Colonization Road was originally a 21-kilometre stretch between Couchiching First Nation and the rich agricultural land to the west. Today, it is divided into two unconnected sections: Colonization Road East and Colonization Road West. Colonization Road East begins at a bridge over the railroad tracks that separate the First Nation from the town. The park at the base of the bridge was originally called Pither’s Point, after Indian agent Robert Pither, but in 2015, it was renamed Point Park after concerns were raised about so honouring him.

Like many of his friends, Dawson Mihichuk never thought twice about the street’s name while he was growing up in Fort Frances. But when he moved to Thunder Bay to study political science at Lakehead University, he was exposed to the reconciliation conversation and learned that his home was often characterized as “This racist little town that has a colonization road.”

He started an online petition to have the road’s name changed. It has now attracted more than 200 signatures from the town of 7,500 residents, and he brought it to town council in June.

“What we do with road names, we’re commemorating events and people in our history. Colonization isn’t something we should commemorate,” Mihichuk says. “Colonization is something we should think about, reflect about, and work to reconcile.”

Mihichuk found an ally in Douglas Judson, a local lawyer, Couchiching consultant, and, so far, the only person vying for the Progressive Conservative nomination in Kenora–Rainy River. In an August letter addressed to the mayor and council, Judson argues that appropriating place and dominating an area’s Indigenous population constitute the definition of colonization.

As Indigenous people constitute a growing segment of the region’s population, and since much of any possible future resource development will involve First Nation consultation, he argues that reconciliation is necessary for the ongoing success of northwestern Ontario communities. 

“[Colonialization Road] is simply a monument to an ideology of settlement — one that would wrongly attempt to extinguish or ‘civilize’ Indigenous peoples, languages, and culture,” he writes. “It was this same ideology that led to the creation of the Indian residential schools — institutions that destroyed generations of Indigenous families, and whose scars are still felt by survivors and their families. Colonization is born of an ideology that is foreign to our modern sense of Canadian values.”

The proposal became a contentious topic on social media and at the town’s dinner tables over the summer. Following an editorial in the Fort Frances Times titled “Don’t be ashamed of our colonial past,” letters for and against the name change poured into the town clerk’s office.  

In the editorial, the newspaper’s publisher, Jim Cumming, detailed the history of his family’s settlement on free land promised by the Public Lands Act. He noted that the roads connected communities that had previously relied on transporting goods on snow roads or along the river.

In an interview, Cumming expressed doubts about Couchiching First Nation’s grounds for offense, pointing out that Treaty 3, signed in 1873, had defined Couchiching as a “half-breed” community made up primarily of Métis people who had been displaced by the Red River Rebellion.

“Those along the river were settlers like everyone else — those who settled at Couchiching and requested the Métis nation become a First Nation,” he says. 

“Maybe I’ll be proven incorrect in a year, but if you look at all the roads that were constructed to improve access into the interior of Ontario, it did impact the way of life. But it also made access by First Nations easier to communities, year-round. I think that’s something that seems to be forgotten — that roads go two ways.”

Couchiching Chief Brian Perrault says no one from the town or the newspaper has approached his community for its thoughts on the name change. He accuses Cumming of misrepresenting history to undermine his community’s legitimacy. He describes his community at the time of treaty signing as a dynamic people whose trade and travel took them to northern Manitoba and south of the Great Lakes. Those who Cumming describes as settlers, Perrault insists, were First Nations relatives from across the territory. 

“If they’re so heartbroken that there’s a possibility people might want to change the name of that road, it just proves my point,” Perrault says. “Some of those thoughts are similar to what we see in what were the Confederate states, taking down those statues to those people that wanted to hang on to slavery and white supremacy.”

Fort Frances town council has referred the question to its planning and development committee, which is expected to produce a recommendation on October 10. Doug Kitowski, one of three councillors on the committee, he says he won’t be recommending a name change, because he doesn’t want residents to have to update their contact information and related documents.

“I don’t know how this could hurt anybody when none of us who are dealing with it today were involved in it being named what it is,” he says. “The real cost to the people who live there to change everything would be astronomical to the town of Fort Frances.”

Couchiching member Ryan McMahon stars in Colonization Road, a new documentary from Michelle St. John that explores the impact of colonialism on First Nations people and communities in northwestern Ontario. He has conflicted feelings about the proposed name change. While he believes it would be a gesture of reconciliation, he stresses that it shouldn’t represent an end in itself: the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples must be entirely reimagined and rebuilt. 

“Who gives a shit about the name of a road if we aren’t talking about Indigenous peoples being liberated from the last 150 years of colonialism in Canada?” he says. “Of course renaming these streets is the right thing to do, but [it’s also right] to honour treaties, fulfill fiduciary obligations under treaty, and create equitable nation-to-nation agreements that liberate people from the colonial systems that keep us poor, dying, and on the fringes of society.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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