Toronto residents and our civic representatives are about to be schooled on racism and our city’s colonialist past.
This may come about from city council giving the go-ahead today to research and public consultations on possibly renaming Dundas Street.
Councillors approved a report from the city manager today in response to a petition carrying more than 14,000 signatures to rename the street, due to the “highly problematic” legacy of 18th-century Scottish statesmen Henry Dundas.
The petition launched by Toronto resident Andrew Lochlead charges Dundas “actively participated in obstructing the abolition of slavery in the British Empire from 1791 to the end of his political career in 1806” to preserve the profiteering of friends in the slave trade.
The report outlined research already done through interviews with experts like historians and proposed further investigation, as well as a consultation and communications plan to solicit participation by residents and business owners around Dundas Street and by Toronto’s Black communities.
City manager Chris Murray told council his staff will share its growing body of information about Henry Dundas.
“We really view this as very much an education exercise and engagement exercise where the full history that has been collated by scholars in this area is presented to people to understand really what his legacy is,” Murray said.
This would also give people the “opportunity to provide us some feedback on the options that we’ve given to council in this report,” he said.
The cost of the initial stage of the communications and consultation as proposed in the report is an estimated $250,000.
Further costs would depend on which of four options for action taken after the consultation stage is adopted by council:
- Doing nothing
- Keeping Dundas street names but adding interpretations and recognitions of the issue
- Keeping Dundas street names but renaming other city assets bearing the Dundas name (excluding TTC facilities)
- Renaming Dundas street names and all other city assets bearing the Dundas name
Obviously, the first option of making no changes would cost the least. But changes of street names could involve millions of dollars, as the city may be on the hook for costs incurred by merchants who would have to change their addresses or names, Murray suggested.
“Dundas Street” in the report stands for four sections of roadway spanning Toronto: Dundas Street East, Dundas Street West, Dundas Square, and Old Dundas Street near the Humber River.
Murray promised councillors the investigation of Dundas’s legacy would be impartial and assured York Centre councillor James Pasternak that academic documents he had submitted purportedly refuting the accusations against Dundas would be considered.
“History is messy,” Murray said. “If we’re looking for a simple answer to all this, I’ll just forewarn everyone, it’s not simple.” But it’s worthwhile, he added.
The report noted staff had confirmed Dundas Street was named in 1793 by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, in honour of Henry Dundas, then Great Britain’s Home Secretary.
But interpreting the role of Henry Dundas in the abolition of slavery “is complicated,” the report noted. Dundas made statements opposing slavery, though his gradualist approach to abolishing slavery made him “no more than a moderate anti-slavery reformer.” His motives were questioned as he had connections to British West Indian economic interests. although there is no evidence he owned slaves or profited directly from the slave trade.
“Whether Dundas is viewed cynically or as a pragmatist, his actions from 1792 onward contributed to the perpetuation of the crime against humanity of enslaving human beings,” the report says.
May John Tory praised staff’s report as a “thoughtful, balanced, objective statement that doesn’t deny the fact that there’s an issue to be dealt with here.
“We’re going to deal with it the way we do in Toronto,” looking at facts and evidence but also at what people have to say of their feelings and experience of racism, Tory said.
“Racism is a part of Canadian history,” University-Rosedale councillor Mike Layton said. “Until we do something about structural racism starting with the monuments and the symbols and signs around us, nothing will have changed.”
Eglinton-Lawrence councillor Mike Colle related a story of bigotry from his own life some years ago and said, “What we’re asking staff to do is a very, very difficult task but they must do it. It is part of re-opening some wounds and expressing the ugly colonial history, et cetera, but I think that approach is the right approach.”
Toronto-Danforth councillor Paula Fletcher said through the renaming project Torontonians are addressing their colonial past.
“Today we actually have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, and that is getting down to getting this report out, to starting that conversation, to hearing the difficult things that people often simply don’t want to hear.”
Former governor general supports renaming Dundas
Colle also cited a letter the city received from Adrienne Clarkson, former governor general of Canada. Clarkson supported the renaming of Dundas Street.
“[Henry] Dundas has absolutely nothing to do with our history and our customs here. When I look at the Toronto of today and see its diversity and its striving to have equality in that diversity, I am convinced that the Dundas name should not be on any city asset,” she wrote.
“When I was a child at public school in Ottawa, we often did essays on the names of streets, lakes, and mountains. How can you explain to a child the background of Dundas Street and the Dundas subway? The answer is that you can’t. That name has no place here. That name has no relevance to our history.”
City staff are to report back to council in 2021 after the consultations.
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