May 30, 2024

Photo credit: Kayla Isomura (provided by Smoke and shared with permission). Bangishimo (left) and Amy Smoke (right), co-founders of O:se Kenhionhata:tie Land Back Camp who announced the park’s new name together, stand side-by-side at the site of the camp in Willow River Park.

With National Day for Truth and Reconciliation approaching and the recent death of Queen Victoria’s great-great granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, questions about the implications of colonial legacies are resurfacing. 

“The Queen reigned for 70 years in the most horrific time for Indigenous people,” says Amy Smoke, Indigiqueer 2-Spirit parent and community organizer who is Mohawk Nation Turtle Clan of the Six Nations of the Grand River. 

Smoke says the name Willow River Park comes from the Kanien’kehaka Haudenosaunee name for the Grand River, O:se Kenhionhata:tie, which translates to Willow River, or “where the willows are” and explains that returning placemaking names is an important aspect of land acknowledgements and recognizing stolen land. Smoke is one of the co-founders of the KW Land Back Camp O:se Kenhionhata:tie and an instructor at the University of Waterloo.

A willow with branches swaying in the wind towers over the river running through this downtown Kitchener park. Photos by Robin George.

“We need to stop naming things after colonial idolatry,” says Smoke.

Response to the change has been positive, with many community advocacy groups and Black and Indigenous groups adopting it, says Smoke. They have not proposed an official name-change to the city but are encouraging others to call the park by the new name, without asking permission from city council.

“It’s lovely to be in places where people are just taking that up,” says Smoke.

Debbie Chapman, the city councillor in Ward 9 where the park is located, was contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline. 

Earlier this summer city council members suggested Indigenous art be added to the space near the statue, but Smoke does not feel this adequately addresses the issue. 

“Just take the thing down and rename the park.”

An Every Child Matters crosswalk was installed near Victoria’s statue at the park on Sept.14, and a gathering to celebrate the crosswalk drew a sea of orange supporters to the park on Sept. 16.  

Orange Every Child Matters crosswalk is assembled at the park.  Photo by Robin George.
A crowd gathers near Victoria statue for crosswalk unveiling. Photo by Robin George.

David Alton is a therapeutic community engagement professional and facilitator who works alongside O:se Kenhionhata:tie. Alton says the violent legacy of the Crown is not limited only to the Indigenous people on this land, but something that spread throughout the world, listing examples like Ireland and India.  

“It was a global violence, and I’m very passionate about trying to remove any kind of glorification of the crown and of colonization,” says Alton.   

As a grassroots organizer Alton says they are “really excited about this idea that we don’t have to wait for these systems to change. We can just do things as a community.”

Willow River Park is a major center for grassroots organizing, Alton describes, where people are creating “this new Willow River community that is just and equal and compassionate.” 

“I’m so grateful that this happened,” says Alton.

Though some people who spend time in the park are not aware of the change, people living in the homeless encampment that set up on the park’s island on July 1 have adopted the new name and include the name change in their list of demands hanging in the camp. 

A list of demands hangs from the gazebo in the homeless encampment on the park’s island, including “12. Formally rename Willow River Park” and “13. Remove all colonial statues from the region, starting with Willow River Park.” Photo by Robin George.

Statues and place-names honouring people like Queen Victoria memorialize and commemorate the genocide of the First People, Smoke says. “We really need to think about that if we are going to think about true reconciliation and true decolonization.”

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