Why it’s called Confederation Bridge — and why the push to rename it isn’t surprising

Last week, the P.E.I. Legislature unanimously passed a motion urging the federal government to change the name of the Confederation Bridge to Epekwitk Crossing. 

But that name, and the debate surrounding it, are nothing new. In fact, it was the preferred choice of a panel headed by former Island premier Alex Campbell, who in 1996 picked it out of a shortlist of three names drawn from thousands of submissions from all across Canada.

“Span of Green Gables, Spud Highway, Abegweit, Confederation Bridge, the Fixed Link — there [were] many names for it,” said Raymond Sewell, an English professor at St. Mary’s University.

In 2014, Sewell submitted his master’s thesis on the history of the bridge, its name and what it meant for Canadian and Island identity.

Sewell, a Mi’kmaw man from the Pabineau First Nation in New Brunswick, said he chose that subject because he’s always been interested in how names and symbols shape how Indigenous people, Islanders and Canadians see themselves.

Before the building of the bridge, Islanders relied on boats to connect to the mainland. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

He said those concerns were prescient.

“Back then, I had a hunch that in the future it would be renamed,” he said.

“When you name it after something like Confederation that was so damaging, of course people are going to want to change it. At some point, the zeitgeist, the feeling of the time, the spirit of time, is going to change. I don’t think the spirit of the time is as colonial as it was.”

The meaning of Confederation

Campbell’s naming panel was tasked to select names based on four criteria. The name of the bridge had to:

  • Reflect historically significant sites or events; 
  • Be significant for the local region or the rest of Canada; 
  • If named in honour of a Canadian, the person had to be deceased;
  • Human concepts such as peace and friendship would be welcomed in the proposals.

Three names ended up on the shortlist: Northumberland Strait Bridge, Confederation Bridge and Abegweit Crossing.

Abegweit is the anglicized spelling of Epekwitk, the name for P.E.I. in the Mi’kmaw language. It means “cradled on the waves.”

“[My father described it] as a feather, or something floating on the waves,” Sewell said. 

“I have no idea who Prince Edward is. But when I’m on the land and I look over there, I see Epekwitk, you know? It’s so beautiful. It describes the geological features.”

But the federal government was not bound by the panel’s recommendation. On Sept. 27, 1996, Public Works Minister Diane Marleau announced the structure would be named Confederation Bridge, which a newspaper article at the time points out was the most common suggestion in all but two provinces.

‘It would mean so much to so many,’ premier says of bridge renaming to Epekwitk Crossing.

With support from opposition leaders as well as P.E.I. senators, Premier Dennis King introduced a motion Friday urging the federal government to change the name of Confederation Bridge to Epekwitk Crossing. 2:00

Wayne Easter, then the MP for Malpeque, said in the House of Commons at the time that the name was an acknowledgement of the “important role P.E.I. has played in Canada’s rich history.”

Sewell wrote in his thesis that by choosing that name, the federal government shifted the dynamic from the region and toward the federation, and was the perfect opportunity to reinforce a narrative of Canadian-ness which began with that historical event.

“The word ‘confederation’ [means] a sovereign union coming together with a common action or purpose. In this case, it was the scourge and removal of Indigenous people from the continent,” he said.

“Confederation is not benign. In this context, it’s extreme. It’s celebrating the daddies of Confederation coming together to destroy environment, resources — you know, Indigenous intellectualism. So for me, it meant everything then and it means everything now.”

Ended ‘half-baked and temporary measures’

Godfrey Baldacchino, the former Canada research chair of Island Studies at the University of P.E.I., said in an email the choice may have held a special significance due to the federal government’s commitment to “continuous and regular communication” between the Island and the mainland, first made when the other partners were trying to get P.E.I. to join Confederation in the late 19th century.

The fixed link “presumably put an end to the half-baked and temporary measures that had been provided for 124 years,” he said.

But Baldacchino said the name change proposed last week also holds a special significance, since it reflects the practice of the region’s Indigenous people, who for thousands of years crossed to and from the Island. He thinks Islanders will eventually all warm up to the new name.

“The new name reflects, as naming always does, contemporary concerns, attitudes and values,” said UPEI historian Ed MacDonald in an email to CBC News.

“I daresay renaming the bridge won’t belittle the importance of Confederation — for good and for ill — in our collective history.”

The big debate

Back in 1996, the reception to the newly announced name of “Confederation Bridge” was the subject of some controversy.

“It will be easy to remember because everyone connects Prince Edward Island with Confederation.” said one Islander interviewed by CBC News shortly after the name was chosen. “I think it’s a very fitting name. Very appropriate.”

“Don’t you think you could dig down deeper, find something better?” said another.

Keptin John Joe Sark even led a public campaign to get the bridge renamed, saying if the government didn’t do so, he and other spiritual leaders of the Indigenous community would sail under the bridge to “name it or curse it.”

“It’s a name that has been superimposed on the people of this province,” he told CBC News in 1996.

“Why should politicians in Ottawa who know very little about our history and our culture confer upon themselves the privilege of naming such a vital link to our province?”

“I think there was quite a lot of people that wanted the name Abegweit as the name for the bridge,” said Donald Stewart, who lives in Charlottetown.

Divisive project

Stewart was one of the many activists who opposed the bridge’s construction chiefly on environmental grounds. He said that back then, everything that had to do with the bridge was divisive.

In 1988, the province held a public plebiscite looking into whether the bridge should be built. Sixty per cent of Islanders voted for it. Construction begun in late 1993, and it opened in 1997.

“[The bridge] created a great debate among Islanders. Every Islander had an opinion on it, and it was a good topic of discussion,” Stewart said.

“We got to think about what we thought was important on Prince Edward Island, and what we thought was important about Prince Edward Island.”

Stewart said he gradually came around to recognize the bridge was a good thing for P.E.I. Now, he’d be OK with another change.

“I am totally in favour of the name change,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to support our Indigenous languages and it shows respect and importance of the language.”

A simple gesture

When he was younger, Sewell frequently travelled across the bridge. He’s old enough that he still remembers taking the ferry with his father before the span was built, and how more convenient the bridge is.

He didn’t think much about the bridge’s name or what it meant back then. But he said that for the young Indigenous people and children of the future, the simple gesture of renaming it will make a world of difference.

“If I was that kid driving around, and I looked and I saw the names of my place in the traditional names, I would feel so, so happy and included,” he said.

“To see the traditional names is like a Easter egg hunt for me … I can understand my area through the traditional nomenclature. I know a child would feel that.”

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