Crossroads of Identity: French heritage and street naming in Saint-Norbert, Manitoba

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A sign on the boulevard Pembina Highway shows a Red River ox cart and welcomes visitors into "Saint-Norbert Historique".

In an urban environment, street names provide essential information: where am I? Where am I going? Where am I coming from? They orient us to our location, not only physically but also culturally, historically, and linguistically. As a result, street names can simultaneously reflect and create a community’s identity.

St. Norbert is a neighborhood located at the southern edge of Winnipeg. The French Catholic Parish of Saint-Norbert was established around 1821, and its location at the intersection of the Red River and La Salle River made it a busy hub during the fur trade [1]. Many Métis families settled on its long river lots.

This boulevard sign makes reference to the meeting of the Red and La Salle rivers.

This modern boulevard sign makes reference to the meeting of the Red and La Salle rivers.

Street names in what is now known as “Old St. Norbert” are reflective of these French-Catholic roots; De L’Église, Du Couvent, and St. Thèrese are a few of the streets in that part of the neighborhood. Also featured are toponymic reminders of the role this place played in the Red River Resistance. Rue La Barrière pays homage to the Métis who built a barricade to block government officials in 1869 and catalyzed the creation of Manitoba as a province.

Street signs in Old St. Norbert make reference to the French Catholic and Métis heritage of the neighborhood.

Street signs in Old St. Norbert make reference to the French Catholic and Métis heritage of the neighborhood.

In Richmond Lakes, a development built in the 1970s as part of the growing community of St. Norbert, street names and the story they tell became a contentious issue. The developer originally smattered the streets and bays with names that lacked any connection to the location or the French character of the neighborhood. Seeing this as a threat to St. Norbert’s historic identity, community members successfully lobbied the City of Winnipeg to change the developer’s names to ones that commemorate French settlers in the region [2].

While this particular incident was a profoundly local one, it was representative of conversations that were happening all over the country. Across Canada the 1970s and 80s, there were heightened tensions between Anglophones and Francophones. Bilingualism in Manitoba was enshrined in law when Manitoba entered confederation with The Manitoba Act in 1870, but not widely enforced. The Official Languages Act of 1969 guaranteed the federal government would support the linguistic equality of French Canadians by communicating in French.

The Official Languages Act was a major success in advancing the language rights of French Canadians. Official bilingualism protected a minority language and gave political clout to Francophones across Canada to push for greater recognition of their language rights. This powerful raison d’être was not welcomed by much of English-speaking Canada. Demands for French schools and calls for bilingual legislation, law enforcement, and courts of law were met with resistance, threats, and in some cases, violence [3].

The tenor of Manitoba’s linguistic conflict has waned in the past decades. However, there is still a fragile equilibrium. In 2016, some Franco Manitobans felt slighted when the newly elected provincial government appointed a minister to be responsible for French language rights who was not bilingual [4].

The story of how Richmond Lakes got its street names is a small example of the value of supporting equal rights through measures like official bilingualism. A local group of Francophone and Anglophone residents saw the opportunity to preserve their community’s local heritage. By coming together, residents of St. Norbert helped the rising tide of language rights for French-speaking Canadians.

Street signs in the Richmond Lakes neighborhood of St. Norbert.

Street signs in the Richmond Lakes neighborhood of St. Norbert.

Today in Richmond Lakes, French settler family names like Bonin, Grandmont, and Bérard pay homage to this part of this place’s history.[5] St. Norbert’s street names, old and new, are a gentle reminder of the region’s heritage and continue to guide residents and visitors to know where they are, where they come from, and where they are going.

 


Footnotes and Additional Readings:

[1] Lionel Dorge, Essai Historique de Saint Norbert. Winnipeg: Société Historique de Saint Boniface, 1971.

[2] Peter Carlyle-Gordge, Street Fighting in St. Norbert.” Maclean’s, January 15, 1979. The Maclean’s Archive.

[3] Raymond Hébert, Manitoba’s French-Language Crisis: A Cautionary Tale. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004. 

[4] Nick Martin, Francophone community concerned about minister's inability to speak French.” Winnipeg Free Press, May 5, 2016.

[5] Tellier, Corinne C. Revisiting St. Norbert: A South Winnipeg Community. Winnipeg: The Fort Garry Historical Society Inc., 1996.


 

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Carleton University, Ottawa
Author(s)
Profile picture for user Ayda Loewen-Clarke
Ayda Loewen-Clarke

Ayda is currently pursuing a master's degree in public history at Carleton University. Her research interests focus on local history in the Canadian prairies, memory, commemoration, and public art.