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Petitioners call on township to change name over slavery ties

Hundreds of people have signed a petition calling on the Township of Russell to change its name over its eponymous politician's ties to the late 18th and early 19th-century slave trade.

Russell Township's namesake was Upper Canada administrator who owned slaves

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)

Hundreds of people have signed a petition calling on the Township of Russell to change its name over its eponymous politician's ties to slavery.

The eastern Ontario township just east of Ottawa is named after Peter Russell, a high-ranking administrator in the pre-Confederation government of Upper Canada.

Born in Ireland, Russell relocated to Toronto — then known as York — in the late 18th century, a time when slavery was still legal in Upper Canada. He had a free Black man named Pompadour in his employ, but also enslaved Pompadour's wife, Peggy, and their three children, Amy, Jupiter and Milly.

"I'm 32 now, and I hadn't known anything about Russell's namesake until this year," said Denis Agar, who grew up in the village of Russell, Ont., which is within the township, and who wrote the social media post that sparked the petition.

Now living in B.C., Agar said he learned the "salacious story" after reading a Toronto Star article about how that city was considering renaming a street honouring Russell.

He said he wrote the post to inform people back home about their town's origins, while plugging into the current groundswell of anger over systemic racism in Canada and beyond.

'The town won't change'

There was also the desire, he said, to give the roughly 100 people who recently marched in his hometown against anti-Black racism "helpful ideas of what they can do next."

"The vast majority of the people that saw this post were shocked and appalled, and they shared it on that basis of like, oh my gosh, this is not a reflection of our town," said Agar.

"There was no one defending Peter Russell. [Some] were just kind of defending the status quo," he added. "Luckily, there's been a lot of people to chime in and say, 'The town won't change because we change the name.'"

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

Vanessa Leman was one of those who took inspiration from Agar's post, launching a petition on Change.org calling for the local government to change the name to "something that reflects our values as a town, province and country."

As of Friday evening, more than 900 people had signed it.

"I'm so happy to see that so many people in Russell and in Ottawa have come together to speak on the topic and start this discussion," said Leman, who like Agar grew up in Russell but now lives a 20-minute drive away.

That discussion should take place Monday at Russell Township council, where Mayor Pierre Leroux will put forward a notice of motion on "rededicating" the community after someone else named Russell — while acknowledging Peter Russell's views don't reflect who they are.

New name, same as the old name?

Before outlining that plan in a Facebook post Friday, Leroux told CBC News he was "more than willing" to open the floor to a conversation about what to call the township.

However, Leroux also said changing the name outright could be complex, given that Peter Russell also inspired the name of the village within the township, and also the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, of which the township is just one part.

Should the Township of Russell change its name?

2 years ago
Duration 1:53
Named after Peter Russell, a pre-Confederation government official who advocated for slavery, the township is now the focus of a petition calling for a name change. Mayor Pierre Leroux says it could be an opportunity for residents “to choose who we want to represent us.” 1:53

A counter-petition on Change.org demanding the name stay the same had garnered more than 1,600 signatures by Friday evening.

"The words 'Russell Village' or 'Russell Township' embody everything that Peter Russell was not. And I think this is the legacy of our community — making this an all-inclusive and wonderful place to live, and improving it over generations to eliminate that kind of hate," said Leroux, who also serves as warden for the counties.

"That's what I think of when I think of Russell. It's not of this guy 200 years ago. Up until five years ago, I'd never heard of this guy."

That plan is certainly an "interesting" compromise, said Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society and a PhD candidate in history at York University.

Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, said Russell's views on slave ownership would not have been unusual for an Upper Canada politician at that time. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Russell's correspondences also show that, along with owning four human beings, he contemplated going into business selling slaves prior to arriving in Upper Canada as a way to pay off debts, Henry said.

Diary entries written by Russell's sister talk about Peggy and Jupiter "absconding" to protest their enslavement — at one point, Peggy was thrown in jail as punishment — and in an 1806 newspaper ad, Russell puts the pair up for sale.

In all, there were about 500 Africans enslaved in early Ontario, Henry said, and elites and politicians like Russell made up the majority of the slaveholders.

"Here we are, at this moment, where people are pulling down statues and calling for name changes. And so we have to grapple with that," said Henry.

"I just would like to ensure that that educational component and some of those complexities of that history [don't] get lost in the [township's] conversation."

With files from Olivia Robinson

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