Members of the Prince Edward Island legislature voted unanimously Friday to ask the federal government to change the name of the Confederation Bridge to Epekwitk Crossing.
Epekwitk is the Mi’kmaq word for “something lying on the water,” and it is the traditional name the Mi’kmaq people have long used to describe the Island.
“It’s a very important step for us in the process we’ve embarked on towards reconciliation, towards forgiveness and understanding,” said Premier Dennis King, who tabled a motion seconded by Peter Bevan-Baker, leader of the Opposition Green party.
“It’s about the Mi’kmaq wanting to be reconnected with that sense of place that has been taken from them for far too long.”
The motion says, “it is of the utmost importance Indigenous languages are respected and recognized,” adding that 2022 is the International Decade of Indigenous Language.
“The renaming of Confederation Bridge to Epekwitk Crossing is one way for Prince Edward Island and Canada to show a commitment to upholding the rights of Indigenous people, which are protected under the Constitution.”
The motion also cites the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in its landmark 2015 report on the country’s infamous residential school system, recommended the federal government promote Indigenous languages as a “fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture.”
King said the original idea for the renaming came from P.E.I. senators Brian Francis and Percy Downe. Francis is the former chief of the Abegweit Mi’kmaq Nation and the first person of Mi’kmaq descent from P.E.I. to serve in the Senate.
“Prince Edward Island is recognized and celebrated as the birthplace of Canadian Confederation,” Francis said in a statement released Friday.
“Yet, few acknowledge that this project came at great cost to Indigenous Peoples …. The renaming of the bridge … would serve to honour the strength and resilience of the Mi’kmaq as well as to promote greater awareness and understanding of our distinct identity and culture.”
Meanwhile, the Tory premier said he has already asked federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc to determine the next steps for the name change.
In Charlottetown, several members of the legislature stood in the house of assembly to speak in favour of the proposal, saying the new name would reflect the province’s commitment to reconciliation.
“On Epekwitk, we take reconciliation seriously,” said Karla Bernard, the Green member for Charlottetown-Victoria Park. “This is a really special opportunity, and I want to thank the three leaders in this house for bringing this forward.”
Lynne Lund, the Green member for Summerside-Wilmot, said there once was a systematic effort to erase the history and language of the Island’s First Nations.
“If you unpack the history of the Mi’kmaq people on P.E.I. and Indigenous people across the country, you would see that they have gone through a history of watching everything be renamed,” she told the legislature.
“Indian agents even had the authority to rename people, if you can wrap your mind around that …. We have to remember what was taken. We have to remember that ancestral names have been lost.”
The 12.9-kilometre bridge linking P.E.I. with New Brunswick was completed in 1997 after four years of construction. The Mi’kmaq people have been living on the Island for 12,000 years.
In the early 1990s, a committee sought public input and recommended the federal government name the bridge Abegweit Crossing, which is the anglicized, colonial term for Epekwitk.
But the committee also supplied two alternative choices, Confederation Bridge and Northumberland Strait Bridge. Ottawa chose Confederation Bridge on Sept. 27, 1996.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2022.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax.