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NEWS (APRIL 2017): Reclaiming the Anishinaabe past

April 10th, 2017 · No Comments

Street-naming project highlights a 15,000-year history

By Clarrie Feinstein

How things are named can be loaded with historical, and often political, significance. Consider Toronto: in the Wendat language, Toronto refers to a fishing weir constructed of standing sticks in the water, implying this was an important gathering area for many Aboriginal peoples as the fish from the weirs would not have been for one specific Indigenous group but many. Toronto is often mistranslated as “gathering place”, which simplifies the complex meaning of the word and the cultural exchanges that took place in the region.

“[We] wanted to highlight the importance of the Anishinaabe language in an activist and creative context”—Susan Blight, Aboriginal Student Life Coordinator at First Nations House

Within the city itself, our street names — many of which reflect early politicians and landowners — also obscure the deep roots that many Indigenous tribes have in the area. But Ogimaa Mikana, a project to rename and reclaim streets to their original Indigenous names in the Anishinaabe language that dates to 2013, is challenging that historical whitewashing.

“During the height of the Idle No More movement there was a lot of visibility and coverage on Indigenous activism,” said Susan Blight, the Aboriginal Student Life Coordinator at First Nations House, who cofounded the project with fellow artist and activist Hayden King. “[We] wanted to highlight the importance of the Anishinaabe language in an activist and creative context. We came up with the idea of replacing street signs in an interventionist way.”

Blight and King began by covering street signs with Anishinaabemowin street-place names, the first being Queen Street, which they renamed Ogimaa Mikana in tribute to the founding female leaders of the Idle No More movement and Chief Theresa Spence, who at the time was on a hunger strike to protest the treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

“Chief Spence was receiving a lot of misogynistic and racist commentary during this time from the media. As Indigenous activists we felt that reaction towards her in a very visceral way — we wanted to honour these female leaders at the centre of these movements,” Blight explained.

The Queen Street sign was chosen for its prominent and iconic position in the city. By renaming the street in the Anishinaabe language to Ogimaa, meaning leader, and Mikana, meaning path or road, they were paying homage to their ancestral roots and the modern female activists who were taking action to fight injustice.

Bringing historical context to the forefront is a vital ingredient for integrating the strong Indigenous presence and community that is in the city, and this project is a symbolic representation of improving Indigenous visibility.

In 2015, the Dupont by the Castle BIA contacted the Ogimma Mikana project to turn this form of creative activism into a concrete part of Toronto street signage.

“We had put some signs at Davenport and Spadina [roads] because Spadina Road was an anglicised word for Ishpadinaa of which there is a whole history for Indigenous peoples in this area,” Blight said. “Davenport is a vital route as it was the longest road that was used for thousands of years by Indigenous peoples. There is great historical significance in this part of Toronto.”

The renaming of the intersection was brought to the attention of the BIA chair, Stuart Grant, at a BIA meeting by a member of the team.

“We brought this project to the attention of the city,” said Grant, “to see if we could incorporate the Indigenous language on the street signs. Apparently above the street name on the sign there is space for the BIA to use their logo or whatever you want, so we put forth the original Anishinaabe names and the city approved.”

Blight and King acted as language consultants throughout the process and after a year the permanent signs were placed on major streets in the Dupont area. “We wanted to highlight the fact that this area is the site of these ancient trails,” explained Grant. “It has generated interest and conversation.”

The Ogimaa Mikana project is creating visibility and presence on the land that was and is home to many Indigenous peoples. As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, Blight reminds us that we should also celebrate the 15,000 years of history that colonial and settler history has obscured and eradicated for hundreds of decades.

“We want people to look further into the history and to relearn and speak our languages that hold a central place in our society. And for municipal governments to recognize there are these histories and peoples that deserve a place and visible presence in our city. But this project is ongoing. More will be coming out this summer, so look out for our work.”


Read more

LIFE: Indigenous Games coming in July (March 2017)

NEWS: Building a stronger relationship (February 2017)

FOCUS ON EDUCATION: Decolonizing our schools (December 2016)

FOCUS ON EDUCATION: Building a respectful future (November 2016)

HISTORY: Honouring those who honour history (October 2016)

NEWS: U of T committee tasked with responding to Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivers interim report (August 2016)

ON THE COVER: Tracking history in the Annex (April 2016)

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