Skip to main content

Dundas Street runs through the City of Toronto for 23 kilometres before extending west through Mississauga.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

Toronto is moving to rename one of its longest and most prominent streets after city staff concluded that the historical record of its namesake – Henry Dundas – in prolonging the slave trade is at odds with modern values. The days of the street’s name could be numbered as well in Mississauga, where Dundas extends westward from Toronto.

There has been a reckoning across the country over statues, street names and other commemorations of historical figures whose actions have come under question. The monument to Egerton Ryerson was toppled at his namesake university in Toronto in early June because of his views on Indigenous education. On Monday, Saskatoon council voted unanimously to rename John A. Macdonald Road, in the city’s west end, over his role in the residential school system.

Concerns about commemorating Dundas gained strength in Toronto last summer during worldwide protests about systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.

On Monday, a report by city staff said that the name of the street had to go, saying it was “in direct conflict with the values of equity and inclusion that the City of Toronto upholds.” The issue has been under review since last September.

The legacy of Dundas, a Scottish politician who never visited Canada, has become defined by his involvement in 18th-century parliamentary debates in Britain over the slave trade.

University of Toronto historian Melanie Newton, who has studied the effects in the Caribbean of Dundas’s time as secretary of state for war, said in an interview that his track record cannot be ignored.

“This is a street name that celebrates the history of enslavement … and slaughter of people who look like me,” said Prof. Newton, who is Black.

“For people who see this as, ‘Well you’re changing these names and it’s erasure,’” she added, “this is actually the process of us coming to a richer and better relationship with our past.”

People walk through Yonge-Dundas Square in downtown Toronto in June 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Although the change will be a slow process that must still be approved by Toronto City Council, it appears certain to proceed after Mayor John Tory came out in support behind the renaming.

“This is recognizing a larger history that we must not ignore,” Mr. Tory said in a statement on Monday.

“By proceeding with this change, we are sending a strong message as a city about who we collectively honour and remember in public spaces and we are reaffirming our commitment to addressing anti-Black racism and reconciliation with the Indigenous communities.”

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said she would be raising at council on Wednesday questions about “the cost and other implications” of renaming the portion of Dundas Street in that city, as well as other roads with troubling names.

Neither Toronto nor Mississauga has made public any possible replacement names.

In Toronto, new options will be generated by an advisory committee of Black and Indigenous leaders that is to report back within 12 months.

Also to be changed are the names of other civic assets, such as Yonge-Dundas Square, in the heart of downtown Toronto, and two subway stations.

Changing all the names, as well as a communications campaign about this shift, is expected to cost a total of between $5.1-million and $6.3-million over the next two years. An additional sum of money, which was not estimated by staff, would be earmarked for helping affected businesses and homeowners. All of this money would have to be found as part of the 2022 and 2023 budget processes.

Staff are also working on a framework for assessing other possible name changes. Approximately 60 streets in Toronto have had concerns raised about their names, Mr. Tory said during a press briefing.

Andrew Lochhead, an artist and arts administrator who started a petition last year to rename Dundas Street, called the issue a “can of worms that we want to open.”

The goal is “to dismantle a system of commemoration that … celebrates histories of enslavement, of genocide and our anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism,” he said in an interview Monday.

Mr. Lochhead said the recent findings of unmarked Indigenous graves on the sites of former residential schools “further underscore the urgency with which we must act as a city to address this.”

Critics say Henry Dundas delayed abolition by inserting the word “gradual” in a motion during a 1792 parliamentary debate in Britain on ending the slave trade, thereby prolonging it by 15 years.

But his supporters argue that his role has been misconstrued. They say that the motion would not have passed at all without that word being added, which would have delayed abolition even longer.

Dundas’s descendant, Bobby Dundas – the 10th and current Viscount Melville, who also goes by Bobby Melville – pressed his ancestor’s case at a Toronto city hall committee meeting last year. He could not be reached Monday, but said in September’s video appearance that Henry Dundas was being maligned.

“History must be viewed and examined with a full understanding of human civilization at that specific period of time,” he said then. “I just feel very passionately that we must not and cannot rewrite history. And what gives us the right to decide which legacy should and should not be celebrated?”

In its report Monday, Toronto city staff came down firmly on the side of the critics. It noted that staff had reviewed academic research describing Henry Dundas as having “played an instrumental role” in slowing the end of the slave trade.

“Taking steps to right wrongs, challenge systemic institutionalized racism, and build a more inclusive Toronto is more important than ever,” the report states. “Addressing the historical legacy of Dundas Street is one of these steps.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.