“The City of Toronto is broke,” its new mayor, Olivia Chow, said last month, turning her pocket inside out theatrically to show there was nothing in it.
She is not far off. City hall is a staggering $1.5-billion short of what it needs to keep the town running for the next two years. Naturally, it is looking around for ways to save money. One obvious way presents itself. It could reverse a costly and misguided decision to rename a major street.
Dundas Street spans the city core, linking the east and west ends. It crosses the Don Valley, passes the Eaton Centre and travels through Chinatown, extending all the way into the suburban city of Mississauga.
It is one of the city’s oldest and best-known thoroughfares. The first governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, started building it in the late 18th century for military purposes. He named the road after the man who appointed him, Henry Dundas, a powerful Scottish politician who held leading posts in the British government.
Until recently, most Torontonians had no idea who Dundas even was. But during the global reckoning with racism that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, a petition circulated calling for Dundas Street to be renamed. Advocates said Dundas was instrumental in delaying Great Britain’s decision to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. Two years ago, city council voted 17-7 to strip his name not only from the street but from other city assets such as Yonge-Dundas Square.
Now is a good time to revisit the decision. If Toronto wants to acknowledge the sins of the past, there are better ways than toppling statues and erasing names. One is to teach young people about shameful episodes such as the establishment of residential schools. Another is to honour pioneers in the fields of racial and social justice by naming streets, schools or parks after them. Yet another is to put up educational plaques acknowledging the misdeeds of the city’s early leaders.
Dundas, who never so much as visited Toronto, is not one of those. The case against him was murky to begin with. His critics say that in 1792 he delayed the abolition of the slave trade by proposing a parliamentary amendment that added the word “gradually” to a motion saying it should be ended.
His defenders say that was merely a tactical move to get an abolition bill of some kind through the House of Commons and smooth the path for a final decision to end the trade. The fact that the House of Lords was opposed to abolition and that Britain was fixated on its war with revolutionary France were much bigger factors in the delay.
They also point out that, earlier in his career, when he was Lord Advocate of Scotland, Dundas helped argue the case of Joseph Knight, who fought in court for his freedom from the plantation owner who had brought him to Scotland from Jamaica.
If Toronto erases a historic street name on the basis of such mixed evidence, then it is open season. Its downtown is positively littered with names from its past as a distant outpost of the British Empire. City staff identified about 60 streets named after figures “that are no longer considered to be reflective of the city’s contemporary values,” among them “at least 12 streets named after slave owners.”
A city report in 2021 said erasing Dundas’s name alone would mean, among many other things, replacing 730 street signs, changing 129 signs and 35 info pillars in the city’s wayfinding system and renaming three parks and two subway stations.
That is not to mention the hassle for the 97,000 residents and 4,500 businesses on the street. Sixty of those businesses have Dundas in their names.
The latest estimate of the cost is $8.6-million, no trifle at a time when the city is striving to find the money for things such as housing the homeless. Veteran city councillor Shelley Carroll told a local radio station that, simply put, “we don’t have the money to do it right now,” and she is one of those who voted for the change two years back.
Yet Ms. Chow – she of the empty pocket – is saying she wants to push ahead. She should think again.