FORT FRANCES – In Fort Frances runs Colonization Road, a street name that has been labelled as “outdated and racist” by some residents petitioning their council to rename it.
An online petition launched by Fort Frances’s Dawson Mihichuk is the latest effort to put pressure on the Northwestern Ontario municipality to change the name of the roadway, which is present in two parts with Colonization Road East along the Rainy River as well as Colonization Road West along the town boundary.
The Change.org petition, which had 200 supporters as of Tuesday morning, is urging Fort Frances council to issue a statement about the road and express and intent to rename it, consult with indigenous and non-indigenous residents and choose a name symbolic of the importance of indigenous peoples’ existence to Canada.
“It is time to put the past of colonization and racism behind us, it is time to move on,” the petition reads. “Rename Colonization Road.”
The post also notes the municipality also has roads named after British monarchs including Elizabeth Street and Victoria Avenue.
"After all, what harm does having one road to celebrate indigenous peoples cause?" the petition asks.
The street received national attention after a documentary entitled Colonization Road aired on CBC in January and prominently featured Fort Frances resident Ryan McMahon, with the roadway serving as inspiration for the title of the film.
Treaty 3 Grand Chief Francis Kavanagh said the name invokes the history of how his ancestors came from a reserve on the shores of the Rainy River and along with seven other First Nations communities were forced off the land by the provincial government before Ontario recognized reserve land.
The people from those communities, including his grandparents and father, were “herded like cows to one location,” the chief said.
“We’re in an era of political correctness now so terms like that are offensive to many of us,” Kavanagh said.
“I believe when we’re talking reconciliation that’s a good step by renaming streets like that to reflect today. We’re on the road to reconciliation. Let’s do that.”
Fort Frances mayor Roy Avis said there has yet to be a formal request to change the name of the road brought to council.
“We have a very open mind and when the issue comes forward or if there’s a petition brought forward when they bring it forward, council will look at it,” Avis said. “What we’d like to see is something in writing at least to say they’d like to discuss this and council to put it on the agenda.”
Avis, who lives on Colonization Road, noted changing the name of the roadway isn’t as simple as just replacing a few street signs.
“We renamed streets quite a few years ago when 911 came in and it was a real problem for the residents,” Avis said. “They have to change their health card, driver’s licence. It’s quite an ongoing problem so we have to balance everything as we go forward.”
Kavanagh said if the name is changed, he wants Fort Frances to involve community members from nearby First Nations communities like Couchiching on what would be an appropriate solution.
Fort Frances is not the only Northwestern Ontario community with a similarly named roadway as Kenora has a Colonization Road and Dryden also has a Colonization Avenue.