Skip to main content

A view of downtown Calgary, with the Langevin Bridge on the left.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Calgary is changing the name of one of its historical bridges in an effort to recognize a dark stain on Canada's history – the decision to remove aboriginal children from their homes and force them to live in residential schools, where many suffered abuse.

Calgary's city council voted Monday night to rename the Langevin Bridge in response to calls from the public after the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report.

The damning report quoted Sir Hector-Louis Langevin – one of the Fathers of Confederation and the bridge's namesake – defending the government's residential school system, which the commission called an act of "cultural genocide."

"If you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they still remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes … of civilized people," Mr. Langevin said in a speech to Parliament in 1883. He was public works minister at the time.

Of Calgary's 14 councillors, 13 voted in favour of renaming the bridge Reconciliation Bridge as "a sincere act of reconciliation on behalf of the citizens of Calgary."

"Mr. Langevin was a very progressive thinker in many, many ways. But it's important for us to recognize that having him named in the TRC report, what impacts his name has on others in our community," said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in a speech to city council.

"It's about acknowledging that history is complicated."

The downtown bridge, which spans the Bow River between 4th Avenue and Memorial Drive, is lit with thousands of LED lights that change colours with the seasons and in honour of holidays and events.

After the release of the TRC report, social media users, including Tsuut'ina Nation spokesman Kevin Littlelight, urged Mr. Nenshi to change the name of the bridge so it wasn't connected to Mr. Langevin and his "racist" ideals.

City council asked the Calgary Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee to examine how the city should respond to the TRC report. Among its recommendations, it suggested the Langevin Bridge be renamed.

Mr. Littlelight says city council's decision Monday to rename the bridge is an acknowledgment of the residential school era and "the first steps of healing."

"It's so symbolic that it's a bridge because that's bridging aboriginal Canadians with Canada in a very positive way," Mr. Littlelight said.

Calgary Councillor Druh Farrell, who supported Monday's motion, agreed the renaming of the bridge is only a first step on the long path to reconciliation. While Ms. Farrell acknowledged Mr. Langevin's role as a Father of Confederation, she said it is also important to tell the "brutal" residential school story. For that reason, a plaque will be placed on the bridge explaining the story of Mr. Langevin, the history of the residential school system and its impact on Canada's indigenous community.

"We don't want to erase history," Ms. Farrell said. "Mr. Langevin also contributed to the country. So this plaque won't be vilifying him. It will be talking about his role in public works but also his role in the residential schools."

All city councillors except for Jim Stevenson voted in support of Monday's motion.

"This is a part of our history and to eliminate this name that's been with us for over 100 years, I'm just not supportive."

Calgary historian Harry Sanders said there's a local attachment to the name of the bridge, which dates back to 1888 when the original bridge was built.

"Sure, we lose something nice about Calgary if we lose a long-standing name of a feature that everybody knows, but we gain something. The people who are now offended because of the perception of Langevin's association with the residential schools, we can go some distance to solving their hurt," said Mr. Sanders, adding that he supports the bridge's new name.

Calgary's decision could put the spotlight on Ottawa's Langevin Block, which houses the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office across the street from Parliament Hill. Public Services and Procurement Canada did not respond immediately to The Globe's query Monday, asking whether any requests have been made to change the name of Langevin Block.