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  • Writer's pictureDouglas W. Judson

Remarks on Colonization Road

The following remarks were delivered by Councillor Douglas W. Judson during the meeting of Fort Frances town council held on November 23, 2020. Check against delivery. |

Thank you, Chair.

I’d like to discuss the basis for this agenda item and then explain where I would like to go with it. I’d appreciate your indulgence for a few minutes as this is an important item that has captured a lot of attention. I imagine Councillor Hallikas may have some words to share after me, and thereafter I would be happy to hear from councillors and to respond to comments.

For about the past year, we have opened these meetings with an acknowledgement of the territory on which we are situated and the people who loved this land first. While some have come to view these as perfunctory, the words that we use matter.

In my profession – in the practice of law – we are ingrained with a sense of the power of words and engage in fierce debates over their selection, arrangement, and interpretation. Words, in law, define the governance of our society and its business dealings. They also set the parameters of our social relationships and the framing of our collective memory, through how we tell history. It is through that lens that I have been thinking about Colonization Road, after seeing the address inscribed across our new police detachment, and once again associated with the type of institutional power that was historically used to implement colonial policy in this community – the consequences of which continue to be felt today.

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 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, 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 our mayor and members of council) are working hard to do more.

When I speak to people in the community – and particularly young people with young families – they tell me that Colonization Road is an obstacle to our progress. When I speak to Indigenous people, they tell me that by avoiding conversations about what colonization stands for it looks like Fort Frances is only interested in the upside of reconciliation – such as economic partnership and joint strategies – without internalizing the facts of our history.

The fact is that Colonization 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. If we cared about a proper accounting for history and reflecting the 25-30% of our citizens that are Indigenous, we would see streets named for Indigenous figures too – not just settlers.

Indigenous people who live here today bear the scars of colonial 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. We can acknowledge that colonization is a value-laden term that has not been a positive force for everyone, while also remaining proud of those whose labour and early contributions built the communities we know today. And I say that from a place of personal pride in my own family’s century farm, established in 1898.

As we move forward to consider this item, I think it is important for council to account for some questions have already been answered:

  • First, it is clear that there is limited debate to be had on whether ‘colonization’ is an appropriate moniker for a local street. It is a 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. For the same reason we would bristle at a Segregation Street, Apartheid Avenue, or Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Drive, we should recognize the error of Colonization Road.

  • Second, no process we undertake in Fort Frances is going to find a novel, somehow 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. And if someone is telling you that I have it wrong on colonization – that the TRC, the courts, and government has it wrong – ask yourself who they are and why their perspective matters more than those who are directly linked to these harms.

  • 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. While there may be practical questions, cost isn’t one of them.

  • Fourth, we know that no one is going to lose any mail. Canada Post advised us today that a free mail forwarding service is available for 12 months following an address change by a municipality.

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 the town’s official use of 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 during our term of council.

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 members must exercise judgment as leaders in considering public input, and take note when opposition comes from a place of anger and hostility versus one of pragmatism and clarification-seeking. It is beneath us to entertain the notion that indigenizing local institutions to better reflect our population is somehow unsightly.

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 reflect 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.

So where do we go from here?

The resolution which was originally proposed would create an ad-hoc committee to implement a public process to seek input on the new name for Colonization Road. However, upon conferring with some members of council, I have drafted an alternative which would initially task the committee with making a recommendation about whether to change the name of the road at all, considering all of the constraints, concerns, and motivations for doing so. If council accepts a recommendation from the committee to make a change, the committee would then be tasked with overseeing a public process to accept submissions for the new name of the road.

While I think the need to make this change is clear, I am not opposed to either approach. My hope is that by deferring the vote on any resolution to our December 14 meeting, as we are doing, council members will have had over a month to confer with constituents and conduct their own research.

As a final note, I want to leave you with a reflection from one of my favourite columnists. She writes that history is in the renaming. No one will forget what something once was called. 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. Its story will become about how we reflected on the type of community we have been, and took action at a transformative time in our history, to better reflect the type of community we want to be in the future.

That is a noble project, and I ask for your support to move it forward at our next meeting, even if you’re skeptical right now.

Those are my remarks, subject to an opportunity to respond to comments. Thank you.

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