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Detail from a handout photograph of a Duke of Wellington miniature, painted by Frenchman Jacques Rochard on the eve of Wellington's crucial victory over Emperor Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. (HO/REUTERS)
Detail from a handout photograph of a Duke of Wellington miniature, painted by Frenchman Jacques Rochard on the eve of Wellington's crucial victory over Emperor Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. (HO/REUTERS)

Globe editorial

Retreat from renaming Wellington Street Add to ...

The streetscape of the older parts of the older cities and towns of Canada - including its nomenclature - is a highly visible and audible embodiment of the country's history. The misguided notion that Wellington Street, Ottawa, should be renamed Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard, or Macdonald-Cartier Boulevard, implies that Canada was created out of nothing in one great flash of light on July 1, 1867.

By a narrow vote, the planning and environment committee of Ottawa's city council has cautiously nudged this anti-historical idea forward to a consultation phase. It can still be stopped.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was not only a brilliant, victorious general in a world war between France, on the one hand, and Britain, Russia and Prussia on the other, but as prime minister and a senior cabinet minister of Britain over a period of decades he was involved in the affairs of what was then British North America - sometimes in such detail that, for instance, he authorized the building of the Rideau Canal, a matter of great importance to Ottawa. The Duke went so far as to write to Colonel John By (himself commemorated in the ByWard Market) to tell him "not to wait for Parliamentary Grants, but to proceed with all despatch consistent with economy."

There are many Wellington and Wellesley streets in some regions of English-speaking Canada, just as there are many called King, Queen, Church, George, Prince, Charlotte and (more matter-of-factly) Water. To the people of early 19th-century Canada, the Duke was perhaps the greatest figure of the age.

Ottawa's Wellington Street is so centrally located, so bound up with 143 years of federal politics, that its name is historical in its own right. Curiously, the president of the Dominion-Historica Institute, favours this act of revisionism. It is all the more striking that the Société Macdonald-Cartier Society strongly supports the street's present name.

Surely historical sense (with a little help from political and bureaucratic inertia) will prevail, and Wellington Street will preserve its name. But it is to be hoped that it is not, as the Duke said in another, more violent context, "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."

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