Toronto Mayor John Tory is willing to consider renaming a major city street whose namesake obstructed the abolition of slavery, as a global movement to re-examine which historical figures are being honoured gains momentum.
The call to rename Dundas Street has been building this week, with critics noting that Henry Dundas used his role in the British Parliament to help delay by 15 years the end of legal slavery in the Empire. His detractors in the United Kingdom are also calling for the removal of a monument to him in Edinburgh.
“It’s wrong to frame this debate as about something in the past, because it’s something we live with daily right now,” said amateur Toronto historian Andrew Lochhead, whose online petition to have Dundas Street renamed has gathered thousands of signatures since it was posted Monday.
“We have a street named after a fellow who literally has the blood and bondage of human beings on their hands … this is not something about righting a historical wrong, it’s about righting a current wrong.”
Mr. Lochhead said it was not up to him to come up with a better name, which he believes should be determined through community engagement.
On Wednesday, Mr. Tory said he had asked the city manager to strike a working group to look at the names of streets and public spaces, including Dundas, that may not be acceptable at this time.
“We do have a street naming policy, and a process to rename streets,” Mr. Tory said. “But I think, in light of the context within which this particular street name has risen, a broader and more in-depth examination and discussion is warranted.”
The Mayor said that he would be expecting an initial report from staff within 30 days on the direction of the working group, though he warned that actual change would take longer.
“Renaming a major street or public space does create many practical challenges, but we should have a process that can examine what are very important and relevant historical questions, along with all of the practical matters involved, if such changes were to be made,” Mr. Tory said.
His acknowledgement that historical deeds need to be considered came as statues and street names are facing new scrutiny around the world. In the most striking example, on the weekend British protesters in Bristol tore down a monument to Edward Colston, who made his fortune in the slave trade, dragged it through the street and dumped it in the harbour.
Earlier this year, Toronto politicians voted to drop the name of Russell Street, in the downtown, in favour of Ursula Franklin Street. Peter Russell was an early Toronto slave owner who fought against abolition. Franklin was a prize-winning Canadian scientist.
Other Toronto names that have come under criticism include Jarvis Street, which commemorates Samuel Jarvis, a man who had to sell his estate to pay back money embezzled while acting as Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Upper Canada.
Egerton Ryerson, for whom the downtown university is named, has also been criticized. In 2018, the university erected a plaque on campus acknowledging that Ryerson’s “recommendations were instrumental in the design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System.” Critics have also called for the removal from the grounds of City Hall of a statue of Winston Churchill, whose writings make clear his bigotry.
Mr. Lochhead, who launched the petition targeting the name of Dundas Street, says that it’s important to take a broad look at who is being honoured in Toronto.
“Times and contexts change, and while we don’t want to judge the actions of someone necessarily by contemporary standards, we can say that these are no longer things that we value in a person,” he said.
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