Bishop Grandin was an early proponent of residential schools. Former Edmonton Dan Knott had links to the Ku Klux Klan. Federal cabinet minister Frank Oliver supported policies to block Eastern Europeans and Asians from immigrating to Canada.
But, Edmonton places carry or have carried their names, a testament to what happens when you decide to name something for a person before history really has the chance to judge him or her.
The team formerly known as the Edmonton Eskimos has jettisoned its name, just as the Washington Football Team (NFL) got rid of the Redskins moniker. The Cleveland Indians (MLB) are reviewing their name — all of this after increased pressure from sponsors.
What’s in a name? Let’s talk.
Change, But Don’t Vilify
As a newspaper publisher and, later, government minister, Frank Oliver fought for Edmonton to become the capital of Alberta, and for the West to get more out of confederation. He also supported the opening of the west to immigrants, as long as they weren’t from Eastern Europe or Asia. He once said of Asian immigrants: They “are not our people, they do not belong to our civilization, they do not strengthen our country and we are here for ourselves and not for them.”
There’s a laundry list of racist policies that Oliver supported and racist statements that he made. Frankly, to publish them all would take up the better portion of this magazine. And, one of Edmonton’s oldest neighbourhoods is named for him. Over the summer, the Oliver Community League opened the #UncoverOliver dialogue about discussing its namesake’s legacy and possibly changing the name of the neighbourhood. Robyn Paches, the head of the community league, said the process could take well into 2021. And while he wants the name to be changed, he warns that people who continue to use the name shouldn’t be vilified. This is a new process — the City of Edmonton has never had to deal with this before, and has advised the OCL to be the precedent-setters when it comes to reviewing place names in the city.
“We don’t want to make it negative,” Paches says. “We don’t want to vilify any business who cannot change their name.
”Many businesses carry the names of the neighbourhoods they are in, from medical clinics to convenience stores. So, if a business can’t afford to change its signage or website, Paches believes the community needs to show understanding. Plus, Paches and his fellow OCL members have found that many Oliver residents don’t know where the name comes from. “It shows us what a terrible teacher naming something for a person really is,” says Paches.
Until the late 1930s, the community was simply known as the “West End.” But as more communities arose west of that location, Oliver was chosen because Oliver School was already in the neighbourhood, and the community wanted to follow its lead. The school got its name when Oliver was still in elected office.
In September 2020, the Edmonton Public School board voted to change the name.
So, if the OCL can get the name change through, whom should it be named for? Knowing that today’s heroes can be tomorrow’s villains — Oliver’s actions were actually praised when he was in office — Paches promotes the policy of giving communities the opportunity to renew or change their names through processes that everyone knows are coming (say, every 30 years or so). It would create a predictable process that gives communities time to think and come together to discuss what they want to be called.