Toronto's Dundas Street has existed since at least the early 1800s. Here's why it could get a name change

Toronto city staff have completed a review of a petition calling for Dundas Street to be renamed and will hear recommendations on the way forward next month.

'Street names and monuments should reflect our values and priorities,' the petition argues

The petition calls for the use of street names that 'reflect our values and priorities.' (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Toronto city staff have completed a review of a petition calling for Dundas Street to be renamed and will hear recommendations on the way forward next month.

Earlier this year, Mayor John Tory asked city manager Chris Murray to form a working group of staff — including the city's Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit and the Indigenous Affairs Office — to examine the petition, which was presented to city council on June 27.

The petition requested that Dundas Street be renamed because it was named after Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who is accused of being instrumental in delaying the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, causing more than half a million more Black people to be enslaved in the British Empire.

"Street names and monuments should reflect our values and priorities," the petition argues.

4 possible options presented by city staff

The petition had its genesis at a time when discussions on racial injustices, inequality and anti-Black racism are at the forefront around the world in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent events.

"These conversations have resulted in scrutiny of the origins and history of monuments, street names, parks and buildings across our city," according to the City of Toronto website.

City staff have already prepared a briefing note addressing the request to rename Dundas Street, laying out four possible options.

  • Do nothing. [The city is not recommending this approach].
  • Retain the legal street names with additional interpretation and recognitions.
  • Retain the legal street names but rename those civic assets with Dundas in their name, except TTC.
  • Rename the streets and other civic assets now carrying the Dundas name.
The Dundas renaming petition is one of many global efforts currently underway to confront anti-Black racism and discrimination against other communities.

The briefing note also proposed that the city look at how systematic racism and discrimination may be embedded in other city assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.

"Staff will work on a report that will be presented to the Executive Committee at its meeting on Sept. 23," the city said.

"Once city council has made a decision on how to respond to the Dundas renaming petition, staff will implement its direction."

Dundas Street history and controversy

The name Dundas Street has existed in what is now known as Toronto from at least the early 1800s.

City staff have confirmed that the road was named in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, in honour of Scottish politician Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville.

Dundas' legacy is complicated. On one hand, he made statements opposing slavery and in 1776 he represented a man who had been purchased as a slave in Jamaica and taken to Scotland.

In winning the case, Dundas helped establish the principle that slavery did not exist under Scots law and that enslaved people living in Scotland could claim their freedom.

However, in 1792, William Wilberforce's motion in the British House of Commons to immediately abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was amended by Dundas.

Dundas' proposal — to amend Wilberforce's motion and end slavery on a gradual basis — was adopted in the House of Commons, which then determined the end date should be 1796, four years later.

It would be 1807 before the Slave Trade Act was enacted.

The city said it is aware that some commentators have suggested that without Dundas' proposed amendment, the motion would not have passed at all.

Dundas' motivations for the amendment need to be examined, the city said, adding that it is reviewing the available information and intends to consult with expert historians.

'If you know the history, it's hurtful'

The Dundas renaming petition is one of many global efforts currently underway to confront anti-Black racism and discrimination against other communities.

City staff are looking at how other jurisdictions are responding to proposals to rename streets and facilities and to remove monuments.

Wayne Reeves, chief curator of the city's economic development and culture division, says names of other Toronto streets are associated with slave owners, including Jarvis Street and the Baby Point neighbourhood.

Changing the names isn't about erasing history but "addressing how racism is systemically embedded in the city's urban landscape," he told the city's Aboriginal affairs advisory committee Wednesday.

"It's looking at how history has been commemorated through the way that we've honoured figures from the past," he added. 

Channon Oyeniran, vice president of Ontario's Black History Society, agrees. 

She says changing street names won't change the past, but may improve the future.

"If you know the history, it's hurtful, definitely, for the people in the Black community to know the history and then still see the name," she said. 

"For so long for members of the Black community ... our voices and stories haven't been heard, so it's important to hear those stories." 

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.


With files from Angelina King


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