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Toronto City Council has voted to move ahead in giving Yonge/Dundas Square the new name Sankofa Square, but the name of Dundas Street, which runs along north and northeast edges of the square, will remain the same.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto has backed down on plans to rename one of its most prominent streets, an idea that was cast as an effort at racial reconciliation, after fierce pushback from critics who said the move would have been too costly and was based on a mischaracterization of the actions of the street’s namesake.

Instead, city council voted on Thursday evening to rename four civic assets: Yonge-Dundas Square, two subway stations and a library. The city will now shelve any work on renaming Dundas Street, which runs across the downtown and extends beyond city limits. Later in the same meeting, council voted to honour controversial former mayor Rob Ford by naming a football stadium after him.

The push to rename Dundas Street began in the midst of the global racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd by police in the U.S. The groundswell led to statues being toppled, and also to Toronto’s Ryerson University being renamed because of 19th-century educator Egerton Ryerson’s views on Indigenous education.

At the time, city staff concluded critics were right that Dundas Street’s namesake, Scottish politician Henry Dundas, had participated in prolonging the transatlantic slave trade. A petition with 14,000 signatures demanded the street be renamed. Council agreed in 2021, and city staff began a process of finding a new name.

But Dundas defenders continued to fight, saying Mr. Dundas had actually sought to end slavery. Former mayors David Crombie, Art Eggleton and John Sewell came out in the summer against the renaming. Then this week staff said that the estimated cost to the city of renaming the street had doubled to about $12-million.

At its meeting on Thursday, city council changed gears. Councillors voted overwhelmingly in favour of directing staff to do no more work on renaming Dundas Street unless told to do so by council. But they still approved renaming Yonge-Dundas Square, the Dundas and Dundas West subway stations and the Jane/Dundas library branch.

During her campaign for election earlier this year, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said she supported renaming. On Friday, she said in an interview that she did not campaign on renaming the street, specifically.

The partial renaming, she said, is part of a bigger process. “It’s a journey, and the journey starts with Yonge/Dundas Square being changed,” she said.

Council backed a recommendation to rename the downtown gathering spot Sankofa Square. A staff report describes “sankofa” as a concept originating in what is now Ghana that “refers to the act of reflecting on and reclaiming teachings from the past which enables us to move forward together.” A recent exhibition at the University of British Columbia put it slightly differently, saying sankofa is “an expression of cultural and political affirmation” based on the idea that “taking pride in heritage helps us move into the future.”

Jennifer Dundas, a distant relative of Mr. Dundas and the chairperson of the Henry Dundas Committee of Ontario, said she is furious that her ancestor has again been impugned, but pleased that the street will retain its name. She noted that Henry Dundas might have been pleased that he is no longer sharing billing at the square with George Yonge, a man known for incompetence and his own connections to the slave trade.

“This is acceptable to the Dundas family, because we believe Henry Dundas wouldn’t even want his name associated with Yonge Street,” she said. “So there’s irony written all over this decision.”

Henry Dundas never visited Canada. Critics say that, during a 1792 parliamentary debate in Britain on ending the slave trade, he delayed abolition by inserting the word “gradual” in a motion, thereby prolonging the trade by 15 years. But his supporters interpret the action differently. They say that the motion would not have passed at all without that word being added.

Andrew Lochhead, a postgraduate student at Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson University, who launched the original petition to rename Dundas Street, was pleased with the result at council. He noted that Sankofa Square “will sit uneasily” against Dundas Street, which runs along its northern edge.

“This is a call from the very ancestors of the people who Dundas’s actions harmed, and who continue to experience the impact of those actions,” he said. “These things set right up against one another in a really uncomfortable and disconcerting way that reminds us of the work that needs to be done in the future.”

City staff peg the total cost of the renamings at about $2.7-million. The biggest part of that will be funded by TMU, which will have nearby Dundas Station renamed after it, and much of the remainder will come from funds paid by developers. The other new names remain to be chosen.

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