Leader’s Ledger: “We are a community at a crossroads”

Colonization Road Fort Frances
Colonization Road Fort Frances

By Councillor Douglas Judson

Fort Frances – Leader’s Ledger – From the outset, the project to rename Colonization Road was meant to be a landmark reconciliation moment for Fort Frances. It did not play out that way. As we look forward to a new year – one with a municipal election – there is much to reflect on from this experience and how it relates to the big decisions facing a small, northern community in transition. Here follows a eulogy for Colonization Road.

In November 2020, I brought forward a proposal to strike an advisory committee to spearhead a process to rename Colonization Road. The initial proposal would have had council lead a civic discussion on the importance of reconciliation and to situate our local history of colonization, with participation from Indigenous people.

But instead of embracing that recommendation and showing leadership, council watered it down and led a months-long, race-baiting consultation process that gave a platform to racism and ugly things like residential school denialism. This approach re-victimized those directly impacted by colonization itself, and forced them to once again defend their humanity and the truth of their trauma.

When the dust settled, the Mayor then positioned the public debate as a ‘both sides’ squabble – as though equity-seeking people were at fault for not fully considering the offensive views of others (which had been publicly aired in written letters to council and toxic local social media for several months). That characterization was disappointing. It was especially disheartening that Fort Frances dragged its feet, when other communities across the region had made the decision to part ways with their Colonization landmarks – and were deliberate and forthright about their reasons.

But here in Fort Frances, council dithered. It white-washed an equity-seeking initiative with the creation of a generic ‘road naming policy’. It instituted a protracted consultation that served only to undermine and cast doubt on clear guidance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The effect of this was to ‘other’ Indigenous people – as though they are outsiders making demands – people that do not live, work, and own businesses in Fort Frances, go to school in Fort Frances, and pay municipal taxes in Fort Frances.

All of that was deplorable, entirely foreseeable, and council was warned it would happen. The refusal to listen made it look like council was out of touch with what is happening on the ground in our community and our country. We all remember the horrific discovery in Kamloops, and wonder what may be unearthed here.

Reflecting 13 months later, I worry that council’s process resurfaced more hurt than it helped address. As a person of settler descent who is trying to be an ally to Indigenous people, this continues to trouble me, because that’s the opposite of what I set out to do in November of last year.

Certainly, there are people who think that I pushed too hard on this. I think I pushed just enough, because otherwise this would not have gotten done. In fact, in retrospect, I would not have been nearly so conciliatory in the beginning if I had known how I would be treated around the council table. I won’t make that mistake again on issues of equity and justice.

To be sure, several people involved with the municipality were strongly opposed from the start. I have been given a number of internal communications between the Mayor, members of council, and former members of administration that show just how deep seated their resistance to this project was. When I first brought the proposal forward, the Mayor tried to obstruct it from even getting on the agenda or moving forward. In the months which followed, she tried to get the staff to put roadblocks in the way. She wrote, in one email, that she would make efforts to stop it from happening.

Behind the scenes, the Mayor and some members of council were even furious that I surveyed the community on their preferences from the shortlisted names from their own process. All I did was consult my constituents, which is entirely appropriate. I think they didn’t like the survey because it made it painfully obvious that the opposition to honouring local Indigenous people was from a small but vocal minority. It also made clear that the nameless opposition to the project was contrived or meritless. The pro-reconciliation results were decisive – and it was their idea that we engage in a public consult to begin with.

Looking ahead, this community – like others in the region – still has a lot of work to do to understand the way in which racism and colonialism have shaped its history and remains part of its present. Frankly, council has contributed to these problems at various times. It now has work to do to move the community forward, to demonstrate a more robust understanding of what racism is, and to dispense with the rose-coloured view of local history. Many citizens and local organizations are doing this heavy lifting already, such as the Right Relations Circle, and Grand Council Treaty #3, which recently hosted a forum for chiefs and mayors (which Fort Frances, inexplicably, did not attend).

A future council needs to reacquaint itself with the Declaration of Friendship we adopted with the Agency One First Nations in 2019. One way that citizens can make sure that happens is by making these election issues, and electing a more representative council. There is no reason why a community that consists of a quarter to a third Indigenous people cannot elect Indigenous citizens to its municipal council. We need more young voices at the table too. The Colonization saga has been a reminder that local elections matter – and the next one we have is going to be important for writing the next chapter for Fort Frances and the type of community it wants to become.

Relatedly, this saga was also a lesson in the profound level of entitlement and white fragility in this community among a small group who hold economic and political power. But these voices are losing influence, and the numbers show it. You cannot tell me that a community that brings out hundreds of people for an ‘Every Child Matters March’ on Canada Day is not supportive of reconciliation or that there’s any significant group in our community that does not recognize the importance of Indigenous identity in our community’s story.

We are a community at a crossroads – one undergoing tremendous social, economic, and demographic transition. It’s time that council acted like it on social issues. We need local leaders to be more forthright in their commitment to the changes we need to make this a welcoming and vibrant home for the next generation of young families, diverse entrepreneurs, and sought-after professionals.

While the signposts will soon change on Colonization East and West – and that’s a positive development – the path followed to get us here missed an opportunity to achieve more, and it did not take our community in the right direction. We are still finding our way.

On January 1, 2022, Colonization Road East will be renamed Agamiing Drive, which is Anishinaabemowin for “at the shore”, and Colonization Road West will be renamed Sunset Drive, which is a nod to local tourism marketing and the Sunset Country Métis Community.

Douglas Judson is a City Councillor in Fort Frances.

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