Toronto's executive committee unanimously supports renaming Dundas Street

Toronto's Dundas Street is one step closer to being renamed. The city's executive committee voted unanimously in favour of a report put forward by Mayor John Tory and city staff to change the name of the street and other civic assets that bear the Dundas name on Tuesday. 

The name of Dundas has no relevance to Canada, says former governor general

A petition was started in 2020 to rename Dundas Street. Now, a report is being considered by Mayor John Tory's executive committee to push the change forward. (Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press)

Toronto's Dundas Street is one step closer to being renamed.

The city's executive committee voted unanimously in favour of a report put forward by Mayor John Tory and city staff to change the name of the street and other civic assets that bear the Dundas name on Tuesday. 

The final vote was 6-0 in favour of the renaming, with Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong and Coun. James Pasternak absent. 

The report will go before city council next week. If approved, the city manager would report back with recommendations for new names in the spring of 2022, with the change ultimately taking effect as early as 2023.

The move follows a 2020 petition to scrap the name due to Henry Dundas' association with the transatlantic slave trade. It cropped up amid global discussions and protests against racial injustice, inequality and anti-Black racism. 

"The name of Dundas has no relevance to Canada … he has no connection to Toronto," said former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, who added her voice to the lineup of deputants who spoke in favour of renaming the street at the committee hearing.

Dundas Street has existed in the city now known as Toronto since, at least, the early 1800s.

Dundas, an influential Scottish politician, was opposed to ending the British Empire's participation in the transatlantic slave trade when the proposal was brought forth near the end of the 18th century. His opposition served to stall the abolition of the practice, which kept hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Black, in bondage and allowed many more people to be enslaved.

"If it hadn't been for Dundas, those people would have been living free in Africa with their families," Clarkson told the committee.

For his part, Tory said the city "has to step up."

"It's time we say, as a city, we're going to live up to our own ideals, we're going to live up to our Canadian values," said Tory, whose support all but assures the name change will happen when council makes its final decision next week.

Renaming could cost up to $6 million 

Critics point to the price tag of the proposal, estimated at up to $6 million, as being too costly. 

But Justice Faith Betty, co-chair of the city's Confronting Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee, said it's money well spent. 

She said changing the name is one step in a "long road" to confronting anti-Black racism as it is not only offensive, but also represents a "great antithesis" to the city's commitment to healing and reconciliation.

"It stands in direct opposition to our city's own motto: Diversity Our Strength," Betty said. 

Clarkson agreed. She said while no amount of money will "expunge the sin of slavery," she said the city can do this "very real thing." 

"Remove the name of Dundas from our collective memory and show that Black lives do matter." 

Dundas Street, which runs through Toronto and several other southern Ontario cities, was named after Henry Dundas, an 18th-century politician who delayed the British Empire's abolition of the transatlantic slave trade by 15 years. (Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press)

Toronto-based historian and writer John Ralston Saul added that investing in the name change will draw more people to the city. 

"I do think that this act of changing the name to something that is about Toronto and who we really are, will attract attention around the country and around the world," said Saul, who also spoke at the executive committee meeting. 

He added that changing the name will be crucial in changing the way people think about Toronto — as a sort of "leftover British-colonial place." 

"Dundas was responsible for at least 600,000 new slaves, a couple of hundred thousand other people killed around that," said Saul, who was asked to speak at Tuesday's meeting. 

"I think Dundas would have hated our Toronto." 

'Orderly' renaming process needed, Tory says 

Critics have also argued that the change would negatively impact local businesses, specifically those that have already been affected by COVID-19 closures. 

But Cheryl Blackman, Toronto's Director of Museums and Heritage Services, said local BIAs, resident associations and business owners have been consulted and will be considered in the process moving forward. 

"Our intention really is to have a conversation that includes a number of different community groups," Blackman said. 

Going forward, Tory said the process in which a street is renamed will be comprehensive and careful, and not making changes "just because someone mentions it." 

He added that it will be crucial to implement a process that will see the renaming of streets happen in an "orderly basis." 

"What we cannot have is a situation where everybody puts in a petition with however many signatures they may have suggesting streets all over the place … because someone is upset about something," Tory said during a news conference prior to the meeting. 

A renewed focus on systemic anti-Black racism put the issue back in the spotlight in 2020.

Asked what the city's role should be in reexamining the way its history is taught, Tory said that responsibility falls to the Ministry of Education. 

"For today, the role of the city should be a leader," Tory said.

"That requires, in some cases, addressing things that are a part of history … we are going to turn the page on things that we cannot be proud of." 

More than14,000 signatures collected 

As of Tuesday morning, more than 14,000 signatures have been collected for the Dundas renaming petition.

Toronto resident Andrew Lochhead, who started the 2020 renaming petition, said not changing the name would send a detrimental message to Black and Indigenous communities. 

"[The message] says, 'We know about this, but we can't be bothered to do anything about,'" he said at Tuesday's meeting. 

"Will we choose what we know is right?" 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.