Old city parkway signs finally coming down, five months after renaming

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“The SJAM doesn’t exist anymore. It makes a person wonder what’s going on. It’s been five months.”

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The Sir John A. Macdonald Parkway lives on, although apparently not for long.

Nearly five months after the parkway’s name was changed to honour the area’s Indigenous Algonquin nation, travellers on Carling Avenue are still being directed onto the SJAM by large green and white City of Ottawa signs.

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Since September, the parkway has been known as Kichi Zibi Mikan, which translates from Algonquin as Great River Road.

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“The SJAM doesn’t exist anymore,” said Albert Dumont, an Algonquin elder and the city’s poet laureate, who led protests against the old name. “It makes a person wonder what’s going on. It’s been five months.”

The National Capital Commission renamed the parkway in a ceremony on Sept. 29, the eve of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The name was chosen after a lengthy consultation with the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg and the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation. It followed a public outcry over the former name and the role that Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, played in the nation’s residential school system.

Dumont said he was unaware the old SJAM signs were still in place on the city roadway, but he would put the city on notice.

It may not be necessary. On Wednesday, one day after this newspaper inquired about the signs, a spokesperson for Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said new signs had been made and were to be installed this week, possibly even by end of day Wednesday.

Once known as the Ottawa River Parkway — informally as “the western parkway” — the nine-kilometre road was renamed after Macdonald in 2012 by the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But the SJAM name became problematic as Macdonald’s support of residential schools became more widely known in 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation report was released. The issue came to a head in 2021, when researchers using ground-penetrating radar found anomalies of suspected gravesites at numerous residential schools.

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Councillors Theresa Kavanagh and Jeff Leiper and former councillor Catherine McKenney wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2021 urging that the parkway be renamed.

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,” their letter said.

Sutcliffe, who originally backed the Sir John A Macdonald branding, also pushed for a new name for the parkway before he was mayor.

“In 2012, I enthusiastically supported a campaign to rename the Ottawa River Parkway after Sir John A. Macdonald,” Sutcliffe wrote in a 2021 Ottawa Citizen op-ed. “I believed that we didn’t do enough in the capital to celebrate our history and that attaching Canada’s first prime minister to the western boulevard would be an improvement over its previous, generic name.

“I now find myself supporting the renaming of the parkway once again,” Sutcliffe wrote.

“Leadership is taking responsibility for the impact of your actions, not just the intent. It’s also about being on the right side of history. Sir John A. Macdonald may have demonstrated vision and foresight in many aspects of the founding of our country, but, on the treatment of Indigenous people, he clearly failed the test,” Sutcliffe wrote.

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The popular SJAM Winter Trail rebranded that summer, too, renaming itself the Kichi Sibi Winter Trail. It wouldn’t be until June 2023 that the National Capital Commission’s board of directors followed suit, voting in favour of the name change to Kichi Zibi Mikan.

The large white on green City of Ottawa signs — complete with a misspelling of Macdonald with a capital D — mark the entrance to the parkway from eastbound and westbound Carling Avenue at its western end, near Lincoln Fields. Just a few hundred metres along the parkway, a black, green and white NCC sign installed in the fall proclaims the Kichi Zibi Mikan name.

If the city continues to drag its heels, Dumont says he’ll be ready.

“I’ve already talked to like-minded people,” he said Wednesday. “I’ll give notice to the city of our intentions and that is to go there with a couple of ladders and and we’ll spray paint ‘Kichi Zibi.’ They need to understand the name was changed. SJAM doesn’t exist anymore.”

Kichi Zibi Mikan
The Kichi Zibi Mikan name was officially proclaimed Sept. 29 on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

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