Jaren Kerr is an editor at Yahoo Finance.
Would renaming COVID-19 make it less deadly? You know the answer.
But what about Dundas Street? Renaming it might “correct” a historical wrong – but would doing so make the underlying issue of systemic racism go away?
More than 14,000 people have signed a petition to rename the major arterial road named after Henry Dundas, a Scottish politician who obstructed the abolition of slavery in the late 18th century. The effort is serious enough that the City of Toronto will form a working group to examine the issue.
But the events that galvanized this movement to rename Dundas Street, along with other landmarks in Canada, are exactly why renaming efforts shouldn’t happen, at least not right away. We are still reckoning with racism and the many forms it takes, from workplace discrimination to police brutality, as seen in the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These killings have ignited protests and important conversations. Toronto’s board of health just declared anti-Black racism a public health crisis.
There are bold proposals in the zeitgeist to fix things: defund the police, give descendants of African slaves reparations, hire more Black people in leadership roles. Like them or not, these ideas would actually do something to change Black people’s lives. Renaming Dundas Street won’t.
Andrew Lochhead, who started the petition, argues that this is not an either-or situation. We can rename the street and implement policy to address systemic racism.
“I don’t want the issue of renaming streets to necessarily overtake that conversation, because I think they’re inextricably linked,” Mr. Lochhead told me over the phone.
“While I understand it’s a largely symbolic gesture … it’s not outside of investing in communities, it’s not disconnected from other causes like defunding the police.”
There is a connection, but until city councils can freeze time and print money, there is always a question of what to prioritize. With COVID-19 putting significant pressure on municipal budgets, the only option is to be pragmatic and focus on implementing policies that will have a tangible impact on Black lives. One way to do this is to give Black voices the authority to make change.
“Black people have been warning about police brutality for decades … it’s not the folks who were perpetuating the system who are going to lead,” Cheryll Case, an urban planner based in Toronto, told me. Ms. Case wants to see the city hire a Black consultant to audit its planning process.
“The issue in planning is that it is not confronting privilege, nor is it confronting discrimination. And by ignoring those topics, you actually further deepen the wounds of discrimination and subjugation.”
In a city gasping for more affordable housing, Ms. Case suggests creating an incentive for developers that would defer certain costs if they build affordable units. According to Toronto’s 2016 census, Black people make up 9 per cent of the population, but account for 13 per cent of the residents of low-income neighbourhoods.
The Parliamentary Black Caucus made the need for better policy clear in a recent statement.
“This is not a time for further discussion – the Afro-Canadian community has spoken for many years and is no longer interested in continued consultation,” it read.
“Black Canadians are in a state of crisis: it is time to act. Words and symbolic gestures, while important, are not enough.”
The Caucus proposes that the government ban racial profiling from the RCMP, invest in Black heritage organizations and increase the number of government procurement contracts for Black-owned businesses.
These ideas look pretty on paper, but it might not be easy to turn them into laws, which is why political resources must be focused on policy, not symbolism. The true cost of renaming Dundas Street is all the time, effort and money that could have been spent helping Black communities in more tangible ways.
What about the financial costs? Mr. Lochhead told me he hasn’t “taken the time to look into” the price of renaming Dundas Street. I don’t know how much it will cost either, but last year, Toronto spent just under $2-million to change the names of two arts centres under its purview. In the city of Toronto, Dundas Street stretches from Etobicoke in the west end, all the way to the Beaches neighbourhood in the east end, and features some of the city’s busiest shopping districts. The cost of changing the street’s signage is going to add up, and those dollars are better spent elsewhere.
Every breath politicians waste on a renaming debate should be spent discussing how to combat racism in schools, or how to address discriminatory fare enforcement officers on the TTC. If Dundas Street or other roads in Toronto are renamed, but Black people are still being harassed on the streetcar routes that traverse them, what has really changed?
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