Search begins for a new Russell after town's namesake tied to slavery

The Township of Russell voted Monday to renounce the town’s original namesake, Peter Russell, over his historical ties to slavery, and to “rededicate” the community in someone else’s honour — someone with the first, middle or last name Russell.

Township of Russell council votes to 'rededicate' community — but to whom?

The Township of Russell in eastern Ontario is looking to 'rededicate' the community after it emerged that its original namesake, Upper Canada politician Peter Russell, owned slaves. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The Township of Russell won't change its name, but it will begin searching for a new Russell to name itself after.

The eastern Ontario township's council voted Monday to officially renounce its original namesake, Peter Russell, over his historical ties to slavery, and to "rededicate" the community in someone else's honour — someone else named Russell.

Councillors voted 3-2 in favour of a motion that said the ideals of Peter Russell, a high-ranking administrator in the pre-Confederation government of Upper Canada who enslaved a Black woman and her three children, aren't representative of the values of modern-day Russell residents.

According to the motion, in addition to being a slave owner, Russell helped to delay legislation that would have put an end to slavery in the region. The motion said continuing to honour that legacy could be hurtful and disrespectful to current Russell residents.

"This has left a sour taste in many people's mouth since it came out," said Russell Mayor Pierre Leroux. "This resolution is to start shining a positive light again and move on."

The only requirement for the new namesake: that the person have either the first, middle or last name Russell.

A portrait of Peter Russell, an administrator in the early 19th-century government of Upper Canada. (George Theodore Berthon/Archives of Ontario)

Duelling petitions

The decision to rededicate the town came after an online petition calling on the township to change its name entirely garnered nearly 2,000 signatures. The petition surfaced as protests against anti-Black racism raged around the world, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May.

A counter-petition demanding the name remain had garnered almost twice as many signatures by Monday evening. It said that "attempting to erase history causes people to forget about it, and only allows it to repeat itself." 

Leroux's motion offered a compromise between those two positions by allowing the town to keep its name, while officially severing ties with the slave owner Peter Russell.

Coun. Jamie Laurin voted against the motion, arguing a rededication wouldn't be necessary if council clearly denounced Peter Russell.

"I don't see why we would need to rededicate the name to somebody else," said Laurin. "We stand on our own."

The township will now strike a committee to identify and consider possible candidates to become the town's new namesake. Residents of Russell will be encouraged to make submissions to choose a new Russell.

During the same meeting, Russell's council voted to create a community, diversity, equity and inclusion committee that would be made up of community members and would include an educational component related to the town's history.

With files from Trevor Pritchard

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