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Oliver no more: Edmonton neighbourhood adopts new Cree name

The Edmonton neighbouhood formerly named after Frank Oliver will now be known as wîhkwêntôwin (we-kwen-to-win), which means circle of friends in Cree. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC - image credit)
The Edmonton neighbouhood formerly named after Frank Oliver will now be known as wîhkwêntôwin (we-kwen-to-win), which means circle of friends in Cree. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC - image credit)

A central Edmonton neighbourhood with a controversial name will now be known as wîhkwêntôwin.

The new name for the former community of Oliver was announced Tuesday.

Wîhkwêntôwin, a Cree word that is pronounced we-kwen-to-win, means circle of friends.

Efforts to remove the area of namesake Frank Oliver have been ongoing since 2020 when the Uncover Oliver campaign was announced. The community league voted to rename the neighbourhood and launched Indigenous-led consultations.

In a statement Tuesday, committee members thanked Elder Jerry Saddleback for gifting the community with its new name — one they believe will better reflect the area's diversity and commitment to inclusion.

The name is meant to honour the area's long history as an important gathering place for Indigenous communities.

"The circle is significant to both Indigenous and Chinese communities within wîhkwêntôwin, in the circular encampments of the Papaschase and the practice of eating in a circle together," reads a statement on the Uncover Oliver website.

"It also represents togetherness, where folks are always welcome to join the circle and be included in the community."

The community, one of Edmonton's oldest and most densely populated, is immediately west of downtown. It has been called Oliver since 1937.

Emily RIddle is a member of Papaschase band and is from Alexander First Nation.
Emily RIddle is a member of Papaschase band and is from Alexander First Nation.

Emily Riddle, a member of the Papaschase band, sat on the naming committee. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Alexander First Nation member Emily Riddle, who sat on the Indigenous renaming committee, said the name change is gratifying.

"Being a member of Papaschase band and from Alexander First Nation, [Oliver] was someone that really worked to remove my relatives from the city," Riddle said.

"Seeing the name that was given by elders that I really love is so gratifying and it symbolizes friendship and our treaty agreement."

There has been increasing pressure to drop the name in recent years.

Oliver, a member of Parliament and federal minister first elected to office in 1883, has a harmful legacy in Alberta.

He is known for drafting discriminatory legislation, including policies that pushed Indigenous people off their traditional lands.

Frank Oliver drafted legislation to push Indigenous people off their traditional land.
Frank Oliver drafted legislation to push Indigenous people off their traditional land.

Frank Oliver drafted legislation to push Indigenous people off their traditional land. (Provincial Archives of Alberta via citymuseumedmonton.ca)

He was instrumental in shaping Canada's Immigration Act of 1906 and subsequent policies which restricted immigration based on ethnic origin. He also wrote an order-in-council to bar Black immigrants fleeing persecution in the American South from entering Canada.

In Edmonton, his policies triggered the surrender of the Papaschase reserve near Edmonton. Oliver also negotiated the surrender of the Michel reserve near Villeneuve, Alta.

Oliver's name has already been removed from Edmonton landmarks including the retail hub now known as Unity Square. Edmonton Public Schools is in the process of renaming Oliver School.

Community league president Imran Ahmad said it was a challenge a challenge to consult community members because of the neighbourhood's density.

"Taking the time was really important to us," he said. "Oliver's community is a lot of apartment buildings, not just single family homes, so getting to reach those people, getting time and availability to talk to people has been really important."

The new name will still final approval from city council.

Erasing the Oliver name from Edmonton is part of a growing push to remove problematic historical memorials and monikers from the city.

Imran Ahmad, president of the Oliver community league, said it's been a challenge to consult members in the densely populated neighbourhood regarding the name change.
Imran Ahmad, president of the Oliver community league, said it's been a challenge to consult members in the densely populated neighbourhood regarding the name change.

Imran Ahmad, president of the Oliver community league, said it's been a challenge to consult members in the densely populated neighbourhood regarding the name change. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC)

Landmarks bearing Vital Grandin's name or image have also seen name changes.

Grandin, the first Roman Catholic bishop of St. Albert, was a proponent and architect of the residential school system in Canada.

In 2021, Edmonton city council removed the Grandin name from a downtown LRT station and covered a mural that paid tribute to him. A school west of downtown named after Grandin was renamed Holy Child Catholic Elementary School.

A school in southeast Edmonton named after former Edmonton mayor Dan Knott was given a new name due to Knott's racist ties. Knott supported the Ku Klux Klan.

The school is now named kisêwâtisiwin, a Cree word for kindness.