As Indian commissioner and lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories during the period when Western Canada was being filled with settlers, Edgar Dewdney left an indelible mark on the Canadian West. His influence was, perhaps, nowhere deeper than in Regina, which owes its status as the capital of Saskatchewan less to its desirability as a settlement and more to the fact that Dewdney, also a profiteer and a speculator, struck a deal with Canadian Pacific Railway to run the rail line through Pile O’Bones in a scheme to increase the value of the land he had purchased there. In honour of Dewdney – who cared little for the Prairies and made no secret of his desire to return to British Columbia, which he considered home – one of the city’s most prominent streets, Dewdney Avenue, was named after him.
“Dewdney goes through the heart of Regina,” says Joely BigEagle-Kequahtooway, co-founder of the Buffalo People Arts Institute and one of the driving forces behind a years-long campaign to have the street renamed. “He named it after himself. He had that kind of influence,” she says, adding that the name change is long overdue. “He’s not a good person to honour now, he wasn’t a good person to honour in his lifetime, and the only reason he was honoured at all was because he had money, because he had authority, because he had connections to John A. Macdonald.”
As lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories from 1881 to 1888, Dewdney oversaw a particularly bleak and bloody period of Canadian-Indigenous relations – including the starvation campaign against the Plains people and the execution of Louis Riel and eight other warriors of the North-West Resistance. BigEagle-Kequahtooway says that “Dewdney had the keys to the pantry and at some point refused to feed the people as per the treaties – and when there was pressure to feed them, fed them rotten food, rotten meat, and still got paid for it, still kept his job, still prospered.” And while it was John A. Macdonald who said that the execution of Louis Riel would convince Plains people that “the White Man governs,” it was Dewdney who arranged for 20 Indigenous people to witness the 1885 hangings of some of the resisters – the largest mass execution in Canadian history.
“He’s not a good person to honour now, he wasn’t a good person to honour in his lifetime, and the only reason he was honoured at all was because he had money, because he had authority, because he had connections to John A. MacDonald.”
The campaign to change the name began in November 2016, when BigEagle-Kequahtooway and others met with representatives from the City of Regina. “They wanted to talk about reconciliation,” she says. “So I came up with what I thought were some tangible ideas for reconciliation, one of them being changing some of the street names in Regina to reflect the Indigenous Peoples of this land, and also, of course, buffalo.” She said that renaming can play a dual role in reconciliation, simultaneously raising the profile of the nations, languages, and cultural groups of the region while “targeting some of the individuals who have been honoured through street names who don’t necessarily have an honourable legacy.”
BigEagle-Kequahtooway and the Buffalo People Arts Institute haven’t been working on the project alone – they’ve been joined by members of Decolonizing Relations, a branch of Righting Relations, a woman-led (but gender-inclusive) social justice organization. While there are logistical problems and financial costs incurred when a place name is changed, the groups say those costs pale in comparison to the social and psychological costs of continuing to honour colonizers who inflicted so much trauma. “Why would you have a place named after a man who has literally promoted the genocide of your people?” asks Lisa Odle of Decolonize Relations. “Who has created a system in which your people starve, are deprived of their humanity? To me, I want to throw a fit.”
BigEagle-Kequahtooway says that renaming isn’t about erasing history but widening its scope beyond colonial boundaries and, in doing so, building a better future. “One way that we can acknowledge that history for the betterment of our people, for us to move forward and move on, is to rename Dewdney Avenue to Buffalo Avenue and create that educational component, so that others know why [the relationship between the buffalo and the region is] important to know.”
“Why would you have a place named after a man who has literally promoted the genocide of your people?” asks Lisa Odle of Decolonize Relations. “Who has created a system in which your people starve, are deprived of their humanity? To me, I want to throw a fit.”
She says that the naming conventions in Regina have often contributed to erasure – including when the name of the settlement was changed from Pile O’Bones (the anglicization of the Cree name oskana ka-asastēki) to Regina, in honour of the Queen, in 1882. “And the buffalo are even erased from that nickname,” she says. “It’s Pile of Buffalo Bones.”
In acknowledgement of that history of erasure, the group has proposed the street’s name be changed to Buffalo, Paskwâwi-mostos, Tatanka, Iinnii, or Pte Avenue – all words that mean buffalo – because of the centrality of the buffalo (or, more technically, bison) to the ecology and economy of the region for millennia before contact.
“We needed the buffalo to survive, and when the buffalo were killed off in a very manipulative and deliberate manner, that basically ended that period of life and livelihood. It created this spiral of trauma that’s still being felt today,” BigEagle-Kequahtooway says.
She says she’s talked to the city about having a “Buffalo Mile,” similar to the “Green Mile” that the city established following the Roughriders’ Grey Cup victory in 2013. “If we had the Buffalo Mile [on what is now Dewdney Avenue] between Albert and Elphinstone, on every one of those streets we could have the word buffalo in the different languages of the people,” she says, referring to the Lakota, Nakota, Dakota, Cree, Saulteaux, and Métis people, each of which has a different way of articulating the name of the animal whose fate has been so intertwined with their own.
“We needed the buffalo to survive, and when the buffalo were killed off in a very manipulative and deliberate manner, that basically ended that period of life and livelihood. It created this spiral of trauma that’s still being felt today.”
While the efforts of the two groups are focused on changing the name of Dewdney Avenue for now, members say that the colonial legacy they’re challenging is broader than the span of a single street. “The core reason for some of the issues that are faced now have been a result of the whole colonization process,” says Odle, referring in part to the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprisings happening around the world – many of which have seen the toppling of monuments honouring colonizers and enslavers. “What we’re moving toward is a restructuring of that system.”
Patience Umereweneza, a Decolonizing Relations member who came to Canada from Rwanda as a refugee, says “the colonial project has been duplicated around the world … a lot of Black people that are coming to Canada, particularly from African countries or even the Caribbean, we’re all experiencing various levels of historical trauma that still link to the same colonialist issues that Indigenous people in Canada face. Part of that healing process is coming to an understanding of what those issues are.”
In the context of decolonization, a campaign like the one to rename Dewdney Avenue is neither unique nor trivial. In South Africa, where the renaming of places and institutions has been ongoing since the end of apartheid in 1994, some scholars have said that renaming “indicates a profound reconstruction of social and political institutions.” Yordanos Tesfamariam of Decolonizing Relations says, “it’s a symbolic step that needs to be taken in consideration [of] the bigger picture.” She adds, “if we can’t do the simple act of renaming a street, how are we better?”
“We say we want reconciliation, we want to decolonize, but at the same time, we have to do the work as well,” Tesfamarian says. “This is one way to show up and show the commitment to reconciliation, and to right a wrong.”
In Regina, renaming Dewdney Avenue “Buffalo Avenue” is a step toward the kind of reconstruction that can put a stop to more than a century of erasure of Indigenous people from their own lands. “We say we want reconciliation, we want to decolonize, but at the same time, we have to do the work as well,” Tesfamariam says. “This is one way to show up and show the commitment to reconciliation, and to right a wrong.”
In addition to holding a town hall and annual barbecues in Dewdney Park and distributing pamphlets to raise awareness about Dewdney’s legacy and the name-change campaign, BigEagle-Kequahtooway says they’ve collected more than 700 online signatures and more than 600 paper signatures in support of the change. The group has also recently launched a letter of support campaign that encourages local organizations to reach out to the city and let them know they support the move.
“In order for Indigenous people to be able to feel like we’re part of this community, we’re part of this society, there needs to be reflections of our contributions to how this society has evolved,” BigEagle-Kequahtooway says. And name changes are one small way that can be done. “There should be Indigenous representation in our street names, in our neighbourhoods, in politics,” she says. “There should be Indigenous representation in our democracy.”