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People walk through Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto, on June 10, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Like cities all over, Toronto is facing pressure to rename places and pull down statues with unsavoury echoes. Should it comply?

It seems wrong, at a time when we are all taking a hard look at racial prejudice, past and present, to continue glorifying those who have been linked to that evil. But it seems dubious, as well, to rub out the memory of leading historical figures, even if they had attitudes that are repugnant to us now. John A. Macdonald himself has come under scrutiny for his views on Indigenous peoples. Victoria removed his statue from in front of City Hall and carted it off on a flatbed truck.

The spotlight in Toronto has been on Dundas Street, the major artery that snakes from the city centre far into the suburbs and beyond. It carries the name of Henry Dundas, a leading British politician of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Dundas, later Lord Melville, held various high positions in government, including home secretary, secretary of war and first lord of the Admiralty. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that his “adroit control of Scottish politics earned him the nickname King Harry the Ninth.” A statue of him stands atop a towering column in Edinburgh’s St. Andrew Square.

The indictment against Dundas is that he helped delay the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. By one estimate, the delay meant that more than 600,000 additional people were shipped as slaves from Africa to Britain’s West Indian colonies. If that is true, why would we not want to expunge his name from a street in multicultural Toronto?

“Henry Dundas blocked the abolition of slavery in the U.K. by years, a delay that cost tens of thousands of lives,” the Leader of Ontario’s NDP, Andrea Horwath, said on Twitter. “Removing his name to reflect our values isn’t about rewriting shameful history – we can’t do that. It’s about rewriting our present day.” Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, has asked the city manager to set up a working group to consider the names of streets and public places.

The trouble is that the Dundas problem is far from unique. Toronto, which began as a colonial city in the far reaches of the Empire, is positively littered with names and memorials of figures whose views modern people would deplore. The prominent Jarvis family, associated with the broad east-side street, owned slaves. So did Joseph Brant, the Mohawk leader who has a Toronto street named after him.

Egerton Ryerson, the leading educator whose statue stands on the campus of the downtown university that bears his name, wrote a report recommending special schools for Indigenous boys, an idea that helped lay the ground for the residential school system. Some of today’s Ryerson students want the statue pulled down and the name of the university changed.

A west-end street that intersects with Dundas is named after William Ewart Gladstone, the renowned 19th-century prime minister. He spoke in Parliament against the abolition of slavery, though he would later call it the “foulest crime” in British history.

There are many, many other examples. It would take a modern-day Solomon to sort out whose name gets to stay and whose must go. Each case, like each individual, is complex. It seems a simple enough decision to pull down the statues to Confederate generals that were put up deliberately in the American South long after the Civil War to make a point about white supremacy.

But what about Winston Churchill, whose statue glowers outside Toronto’s City Hall? He considered India unready for its freedom and called Mahatma Gandhi “seditious.” Even Gandhi expressed disdain for Black South Africans when he was a young lawyer there. An online petition is calling for the removal of his statute from Carleton University in Ottawa.

The record of Henry Dundas is more complicated than it first seems, too. As an advocate he represented Joseph Knight, a slave brought from Jamaica to Scotland who petitioned for his liberty. Some of Dundas’s descendants say he pushed for a delayed abolition of slavery simply because he was a practical politician who thought that trying to get immediate abolition through parliament would end in failure.

Instead of removing the massive Melville Monument raised in his honour, Edinburgh is putting up a plaque pointing out that Dundas was “instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade.” Ryerson put up a similar sign with its statue.

That seems the right approach. Explain, don’t erase; teach, don’t tear down; denounce, but remember. A good place for such a plaque would be Yonge-Dundas Square, right at the city’s heart.

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