Welcoming Winnipeg gets it wrong again

Nonsensical name rejections delegitimize committee

On March 12, the Executive Policy Committee (EPC) heard cases for and against the renaming of Edison Park, a small sitting area at the corner of Henderson Highway and Edison Avenue in North Kildonan, to Matheson Millstones Park.

The previously unnamed park was presumably given the name of the adjacent street, named after American inventor Thomas Edison, when a sign was put up sometime between 2019 and 2021. But since 1966, the park has contained two inconspicuous round stones which were once used as millstones to power a watermill constructed by Angus Matheson on McLeod Creek between 1860 and 1870.

The request to rename the park was brought forward by the North East Winnipeg Historical Society (NEWHS), which lobbied the East Kildonan-Transcona Community Committee in the fall of 2020 and has essentially been in bureaucratic limbo ever since. Part of this bureaucracy is a new committee introduced in 2020 called the Welcoming Winnipeg Committee (WWC), part of the Indigenous Relations Division, which now reviews each and every proposed name change to historical markers or places before being presented in front of EPC and city council.

People proposing name changes are required to demonstrate to the panel, made up primarily of academics and Indigenous community members, “how their request contributes to a Welcoming Winnipeg” — defined, in part, as achieving a balanced history, honouring Indigenous people, promoting Indigenous reclamation of land, offering educational opportunities and supporting the complete telling of Winnipeg’s history. It’s an admirable goal.

However, putting this goal into practice reveals obvious blind spots in ideology and methodology in the committee’s apparatus.

On March 11, committee member Erin Millions — an assistant professor in the University of Winnipeg’s history department — submitted a letter on behalf of the committee recommending that the EPC not rename Edison Park. She begins her case by arguing that “the Matheson Mill is not particularly important to the history of the milling at Red River.”

It’s extremely irresponsible for an academic in the field of history to make such a flagrantly and demonstrably false statement in a letter advising a governing body. Watermills in the Red River Colony were largely in operation between 1829 and 1870, with only nine in existence during that time. Evidence and artifacts of a very few mills remain in Winnipeg, including Grant’s Mill on Sturgeon Creek, Louis Riel Sr.’s mill in St. Boniface, and the Matheson Mill in North Kildonan.

Grant’s mill was only in operation sporadically between late 1829 and 1832 and now operates as a museum. Riel’s mill was in operation from around 1850 until the later part of the decade, and the millstones are displayed outside of the St. Boniface Museum.

The Matheson mill was in operation for over a decade. It was in use for longer and, as a result, is objectively more historically important than the other two mills. By her own logic, Millions is suggesting that Grant’s and Louis Riel’s mills and their artifacts, built and operated by prominent Métis men, are “not particularly important to the history of the milling at Red River.”

No one would make such a ridiculous argument, steeped in historical revisionism. So it provokes the question: why was the very same irrational argument made with regard to the Matheson Mill?

Millions goes on to argue that, because Métis people were heavily involved in the milling trade around the same time, the Matheson Millstones are symbolic and representative of this Indigenous history. And in the case of the Grant and Riel mills, they certainly are. However, historians like Jim Smith, president and historian of NEWHS, have long searched censuses and historical documents and have found no evidence of Indigenous people or groups connected to the Matheson Millstones or water milling in northeast Winnipeg between 1829 and 1870.

The WWC — consisting of academics, at least one of whom specializes in history — had in excess of three years to make some relevant historical connection. But instead, it rested its case entirely on symbolism as justification for not supporting an obvious name choice, a name that was supported by 83 per cent of Winnipeggers surveyed. It’s no wonder the EPC decided to disregard the recommendation of the WWC and vote five to one in favour of the name change.

But this isn’t the first time the WWC has made an erroneous recommendation. In September, the WWC similarly sent a recommendation to the EPC not supporting the renaming of Appletree-Bridgeland Drive North Park to Emeka Nnadi Park, honouring Nigerian-Canadian and Nadi Group CEO, Emeka Nnadi. Nnadi was instrumental in the development of the Bridgwater area, where the park is located, and over 90 per cent of those surveyed supported the name change. In a similar fashion, the EPC went on to disregard the committee’s recommendation and move ahead with the new name anyway.

By refusing to support historically relevant and popular name proposals and consistently being contradicted by elected officials, the WWC only undercuts its own legitimacy. It’s obvious that the committee needs major reform, or these issues will only be exacerbated in the future.

Winnipeg is such a diverse city, with people from so many different cultures, and it’s important that they’re all given the opportunity to be recognized and celebrated.

Because if the perspectives and histories of all backgrounds are not evenly welcome, what, really, is the point of the committee at all?

Kenny Ingram is a University of Manitoba alumnus and a student at the University of Winnipeg.