By Maureen McEwan
The Sir John A. Macdonald (SJAM) Winter Trail adopted its new name, Kichi Sibi Winter Trail, in October.
The trail is a 16-kilometre multi-use urban winter pathway that runs along the Ottawa River and the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, from the Dominion LRT Station to the Canadian War Museum and the Mill St. Brew Pub area. It is managed by a team of groomers and volunteers in partnership with the Dovercourt Recreation Centre, and in collaboration with the National Capital Commission (NCC), and it’s been in operation since 2015, following a successful pilot project.
But, like other Canadian landmarks, the trail’s namesake had been drawing attention.
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, is widely considered one of the architects of the residential school system. Across the country, communities are debating whether to remove his name from buildings, roads and public spaces. The same is happening with institutions and areas named for Egerton Ryerson and Hector-Louis Langevin, two others held as creators of the residential school system.
This summer, with the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites, and coinciding with other reconciliation efforts in the city, Dave Adams, manager and groomer of the trail, decided it was time for the name change.
“We are a community trail, and the whole point is to ensure—my job is to ensure—that everybody is comfortable being in that space. And the name was offensive to some people, and so I had a responsibility to fix that,” he said.
Over the last months, after consulting with community partners, including Kitchissippi ward Coun. Jeff Leiper, and in collaboration with the Dovercourt Board of Directors, Adams said a “group decision” was made and a new name was selected. But Adams said it was vital to ask permission before officially renaming the trail.
“When you are doing such an exercise, renaming something, you don’t just barge in and make an executive decision. We are a community trail: we find consensus. And, most importantly, you ask. You ask for permission.”
He decided to ask Albert Dumont, an Algonquin traditional teacher and spiritual advisor, human rights activist and Ottawa’s poet laureate.
“There was no better person to ask for permission to do this,” Adams said.
For Dumont, the name change was overdue, given Macdonald’s legacy.
“It’s hard for somebody like me, and a lot of other people, to look at somebody like that and have their name connected to a bridge, for instance, or to a roadway, or a trail because such a person was not interested in building bridges or having a trail where people were treated equally and with respect and dignity.
Dumont said Macdonald’s time in power was one of the “most deadly” periods of the residential school system, during the earliest schools’ first decades in operation.
“We’re talking about children,” he said. “And it’s not two or three children that died, it’s not 10 or 20, but many, many thousands of children that died.”
The name was changed in a riverside ceremony on the trail organized by Adams on Oct. 14. A few dozen people attended, including local politicians and community leaders, and Dumont spoke at the event and performed a tobacco offering ceremony.
Dumont is from Kitigan Zibi and said he’s lived his whole life in Algonquin territory. The trail’s new name, Kichi Sibi, is the traditional Algonquin name.
“It means the ‘Great River,’ Kichi Sibi. The Algonquin people are people of the Great River. Wherever the Ottawa River watershed is, that was our territory—undisputed territory—everybody acknowledged that in the past,” Dumont said. “And so, it is an appropriate name for sure. It’s a good name to call that trail the Kichi Sibi Trail because it runs along the Kichi Sibi, the Great River of the Algonquin People.”
Every winter, the trail welcomes many cross-country skiers, snowshoers, cyclists and walkers.
Dumont spoke further about the river and the trail and the healing offered there.
“I know that, for me, a trail like that is for people to heal, to help them with their emotional and spiritual wellbeing,” he said.
Adams echoed the sentiment, making a commitment in return.
“I am using the trail to get people out and active by having the river accessible to them in winter. And this river is a place of healing, both mentally and physically, for us all,” he said. “And if I can do my part, in helping people to get to that river to find their healing, that’s why we do it.”
On the new name, Adams added that it also aligns with the upcoming name change of the nearby Dominion LRT station to “Kichi Sibi.” The City of Ottawa did “all the leg work” in consulting with Indigenous communities and determining the name, Adams said, and they wanted to keep things consistent.
“For the sake of consistency, to rename the trail with the same spelling as the LRT station was also a big factor in helping settle on that name and spelling,” he said.
The ward saw another landmark’s name changed in recent months. In July, Prince of Wales Bridge was renamed Chief William Commanda Bridge after the former chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation.
Dumont said he would also like to see the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway renamed soon.
“I’d like to see the name of the parkway [changed] to be called the Algonquin Parkway, the Algonquin-Anishinaabe Parkway, or something to that effect,” he said.
“It really bothers me, as a human rights activist, to have his name attached to the parkway. And I hope the NCC can be convinced to get rid of it,” he added.
There have been ongoing efforts to see the name changed. Dumont is a listed co-author on the “Rename the Parkway” online petition that has nearly 4,000 signatures to date. On June 2, City Councillors Jeff Leiper, Catherine McKenney and Theresa Kavanah wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau requesting that the parkway’s name be changed.
“We are often recalled to the ways place names in our city perpetuate Canada’s genocide against Indigenous peoples; an obvious example of this phenomenon is the name of the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway,” the councillors’ letter states.
When asked if the NCC was considering renaming the Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway, the organization provided Kitchissippi Times with the following response:
“As committed to at the June Board of Directors, NCC staff have developed a principle-based framework for the revision of our toponomy policy as well as for our broader approach to Indigenous engagement. Earlier this month, we presented the results of that work to our Board members, in preparation for eventual consultations with our Indigenous partners. In the spirit of reconciliation, we intend to engage with our Algonquin partners over the fall and winter months. More information will be available in due course,” wrote Dominique Huras, NCC strategic communications advisor, in an emailed statement on Oct. 27.
The 2021-2022 Kichi Sibi Winter Trail season kicked off with the renaming ceremony.
To learn more, visit http://www.wintertrail.ca.