An Open Letter to Constituents
Updated: Nov 14
Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.
This parting wisdom from Albus Dumbledore, in the fictional world of Harry Potter, is one of its great lessons for our world – one increasingly in need of magical repairs to our struggles and divisions.
Lawyers are taught their own wizardry, steeped in the power of words. We learn that our choice of words, their arrangement, and their interpretation defines the governance of our society and its business dealings, through law – but also sets the parameters of our social relationships and the framing of our collective memory, through how we tell history. It is perhaps through that lens that I have been thinking about Colonization Road again, after seeing the address inscribed across our new police detachment, and once again associated with armed, institutional power.
Since 2015, Canadians have been on a swift journey to acknowledge what has been missing in how we understand the words that tell our story. That year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its landmark report, which exposed, with evidence, the devastating inter-generational impact that ‘colonization’ has had on Indigenous people. The TRC was initiated by an official apology from the Government of Canada, delivered by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, opening a national dialogue on reconciliation. Courts, including in Fort Frances, have reached similar conclusions about the destructive role of colonization in the lives of local Indigenous people. Schools, businesses, non-profit agencies, and hospitals have followed suit with their own responsive initiatives.
Official statements like these have led to a transformative dialogue on the true nature of colonization. Yet, local governments in our region have been slower to react. In Fort Frances, only recently has there been progress on reconciliation and collaboration between settler and Indigenous communities. The progress we have seen has yet to be grounded with many permanent actions, though leaders (including members of council) are working hard to do more.
Colonization Road is an obvious obstacle. It remains a local landmark, and a prominent one. Its namesake is clear: it is one of Canada’s founding ideologies. It is defined as the action or process of settling among and establishing control the Indigenous people of an area or appropriating a place for one’s own use. While many people who think of colonization envision homesteaders moving to the Rainy River District with grants of free land to start a new life, that depiction fails to account for the toll colonization has taken on those who were already here. The choice to frame historical accounts in this way has, itself, been part of the project of colonization.
The TRC report draws a direct link between colonization and the policies which followed – policies which have roots here in our district – including the residential school system, the ‘sixties scoop’, the forcible relocation of Anishinaabe people, and the resulting social and family destruction which flowed from these events. These were efforts bent on destroying Indigenous identities. Parliamentary records and official documents are clear that these policies were racist by design, and explicitly colonial. Ironically, while some have decried the erasure of history if Colonization Road is renamed, colonization itself has always been fixated on erasing local Indigenous history. And that history matters too.
Indigenous people who live here today bear the scars of these choices. They are reminded of it daily by the 13 signposts for Colonization Road which dot the map of Fort Frances, starting right at the doorstep of Couchiching First Nation. They are right to be offended by these unavoidable reminders of wrongdoing and harm.
The rest of us are right to be embarrassed that this symbol lives on in our midst – especially after it was the subject of a nationally-broadcast documentary in 2016. To be sure, history is complicated, and it requires context. But we can acknowledge that colonization is a value-laden term that has not been a positive force for everyone, while remaining proud of those whose labour and early contributions built the communities we know today.
As our council prepares to consider the resolution I have brought forward, some things are given:
First, it is clear that there is no debate to be had on whether ‘colonization’ is an appropriate moniker for a local street. It is a patently racist concept, and it sets back efforts to position Fort Frances as an inclusive, forward-thinking community. The TRC itself calls on municipalities to repudiate concepts like colonization, which are associated with the Doctrine of Discovery and other problematic thinking about Indigenous people.
Second, no process we undertake in Fort Frances is going to find a novel, more palatable framing of what colonization stands for and why this name should be associated with municipal infrastructure. We don’t need to waste time airing ignorance about the virtues of colonization.
Third, we know from the past work of town staff that the associated costs to citizens and the municipality are minimal. In fact, some private citizens have come forward and offered to pay the town's estimated $2,600 in costs.
These issues are settled. It is our action that is outstanding.
Indeed, there has been a sea-change in social and legal understanding of the role colonization has had in the lives of Indigenous people. Human rights law in Ontario has identified that words, names, and images which degrade people because of their ancestry, race, colour, and ethnic origin may amount to a denial of service on a basis protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code. Municipalities received this guidance in 2019.
Regardless, the fact that a municipal name is offensive and hurtful to people who live here should be sufficient basis for us to change it. Council itself should take note that most of the opposition to this change does not come from a place of pragmatism, but one of anger and hostility – as though the very notion of indigenizing local institutions to better reflect our population is itself an unsightly proposition. Leaders must see that aggression for what it is: unworthy of debate.
As our community moves into a bold new future, seeking a new economic identity, the roles, contributions, and perspectives of Indigenous people will be central to our next chapter. The town’s new strategic plan and Joint Declaration of Intent and Friendship with the Agency One First Nations fully acknowledge this, as does the territorial acknowledgement that opens our council meetings. But these start to ring hollow without better words to commemorate our heritage and describe the value we place in our founding relationship. Clinging to a past that, for some, is characterized by oppression, racism, and violence, is out of step with the goals and aspirations we have committed our community to.
The resolution before council on November 23 seeks to implement a public process to seek community input on the new name for Colonization Road – one which reflects a civic relationship with Indigenous people of respect and dignity. While I look forward to council’s constructive input on this item later this month, there remains, in my view, limited reason not to adopt the core direction it sets. It is an opportunity for Fort Frances to show leadership and take the next step in its journey toward reconciliation and a more united future.
Words, in their wizardry, can remedy some pain, but it is our surrounding actions which make good on their intent. For its part, history is all in the renaming. No one will forget what something once was. What they remember of Colonization Road – and how they tell its story – will be the moment where we came together to take a different path. It will be a story of how we reflected on the type of community we have been, and took action based on the type we want to be in the future.
There is more than a little magic in that.
Douglas W. Judson
Town of Fort Frances
For more information, please see the below links:
News Release, dated November 10, 2020 (see the links in the Background section)
Interview on the CBC's As It Happens, November 12, 2020 (listen at 59:30)