Take Frank Oliver out of Edmonton

In the summer of 2017, the conversation that descendants of the Papaschase Cree Nation in Edmonton had been having for years finally made its way within the walls of settler households.

To many Indigenous people of the area known as Edmonton, this conversation was common in a world where those who once sought to destroy you are celebrated. For many non-Indigenous Edmontonians, however, this conversation had until recently, gone over their heads. It pertained directly to Edmonton’s wide commemoration of Frank Oliver, often considered one of Edmonton’s main founders and pioneers. As the creator of Edmonton’s first newspaper, the Edmonton Bulletin, he had the platform to turn the public against anyone including Papaschase, Black immigrants, and Ukrainian settlers. As an Edmonton MP (and also as Minister of the Interior and Minister of then-called Indian Affairs), Oliver sprung his words into very structural actions. He strongly advocated against immigrants and drafted a law to keep Black people from immigrating to Canada.

Furthermore, Oliver directly played a part in stripping the Papaschase of their reserve lands in the area of Amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton) now known as Millwoods. By lobbying the Laurier government for stronger land expropriation rights, Oliver ensured that Papaschase land didn’t stay in their hands for long. He flipped properties and made a buck. His story remains concrete everywhere throughout Edmonton: from the neighbourhood of Oliver, to the names of various businesses, to various plaques and monuments around the city core. Moreover, it also continues to be a concrete reminder to the Papaschase of the abuse they’ve survived at the hand of the Canadian state.

The summer of 2017 was one of tension and of learning. We learnt more about the Generals of the Confederate Army, and through the actions in Charlottesville we learnt the degree to which white supremacists are willing to come out of the woods to defend their heroes. We learnt about Edward Cornwallis in Halifax and the racist atrocities he conducted. Here too we learnt about the extent to which white supremacy protects its heroes in Canada, through the actions and visibility of the Proud Boys. In Edmonton, we finally began listening more attentively to the stories of the Papaschase and learnt what we needed to know about Frank Oliver and his role as another arbiter of Indigenous dispossession and genocide.

In late August, a rally titled “End Racism in Canada: A Response to Charlottesville” was held at the Legislature Grounds. With it came a call to end the celebration of racist Edmontonian “heroes”, starting with Frank Oliver. While the responses to this were not on the same level as those to Charlottesville or Halifax, it still received expected reactions and opposition. One reaction I found interesting was the idea that this was detrimental to anti-racism because it absolved us of fighting racism and whitewashed Edmonton’s history. However, it is clear to me that there are many more ways to ensure that we don’t forget about these historic figures. For example, books exist. When Paula Simons notes that taking down these commemorations to Oliver let us off the hook, she should really be making a case for a stronger education system that recognizes our “imperial past”, as she calls it. The commemoration of this man means that he wins, and that his imperial “past” continues to be our Imperial present.

We must have a conversation about how we honour our histories, and even more specifically, a conversation around whose histories we decide to honour. After all, Oliver’s history intersected at various points with that of the Papaschase and with that of the waves of Black settlers fleeing terrorism in the United States, yet we see no commemoration of these stories in the name of streets or shopping plazas. With Oliver as the namesake of these commemorations, discussions of his racism will always be sidelined for discussions of his achievements, because he did more than just be racist. However, the still-living stories of the Papaschase and of descendants of Black immigrants will always be deeply intertwined with the oppression they have faced, and the discussion of these peoples will always be tied to the discussion of this oppression. At the end of the day, these are the discussions that we should be privileging: Oliver’s spirit will never know otherwise, whereas those who are still living the consequences of his actions will receive a certain degree of justice and recognition, one that they deserve.

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