Real change must accompany removal of statues, street names linked to slavery, scholars say

Whether it be removing statues of controversial historical figures or renaming streets, some Black culture scholars say what's more important is that real change accompany such moves.

In Toronto, a petition is calling for Dundas Street to be renamed

Dundas Street, which crosses Toronto and other Ontario cities, was named after Henry Dundas, an 18th-century politician who delayed Britain's abolition of slavery by 15 years. (Giordano Ciampini/The Canadian Press)

For Torontonian Andrew Lochhead, a petition he started to rename the city's downtown Dundas Street is not about erasing or rewriting history.

"We're really shining a light on it," said Lockhead, a multidisciplinary artist.

Dundas Street was named by John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, after Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville.  Dundas was an 18th-century Scottish politician who, according to the British website The History of Parliament, was the champion of gradual abolition of the slave trade but opposed immediate abolition.

As Lochhead's petition notes, in the wake of protests around the globe over the death of George Floyd, Toronto should disavow its historic association with persons who have actively worked  to preserve systems of racial inequality and exploitation.

"We talk a lot about statues and statues that should come down. But there are other forms of memorial. And one of those in our urban environment is street names," Lochhead said.

But whether it be removing statues of controversial historical figures or renaming streets, some Black culture scholars say it's more important that real change accompany such moves.

Need more inclusive society

"My most important issue here is not wanting this to be a performance," said Carl Everton James, a professor of education at Toronto's York University who researches race and racism.

"My most important thing is the extent to which these actions, these changes, produce real cultural change, where we can see a different kind of society that's more inclusive and responsive to the realities of racialized people."

Renaming streets or eliminating statues will mean little if there remains a lack of Black people represented in societal institutions like corporations and the media, James said.

Video that emerged more than two weeks ago of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into Floyd's neck as he pleaded that he couldn't breathe moments before his death set off protests and sporadic violence across the U.S. over the treatment of Black people.

It also led to many Confederate monuments being damaged or brought down, some toppled by demonstrators and others removed by local authorities. In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the statue of the most revered Confederate of them all, Gen. Robert E. Lee, but a judge on Monday blocked such action for at least 10 days.

A statue of Jefferson Davis, second from left, president of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865, is on display in Statuary Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington. On Wednesday, protesters in Richmond, Va., pulled down a century-old statue of Davis. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Some have argued that statues should be left alone as monuments of history, or that plaques be added with more information about these historical figures in relation to slavery. Others have said they should be removed and placed in a museum, or gotten rid of entirely.

Sen. Murray Sinclair, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada's residential schools, has suggested that tearing down statues is "counterproductive" to reconciliation because it "smacks of revenge."

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Thursday he wouldn't take a position as to whether or not these statues should be taken down, but said it's important to examine what the statues represent.

"If we're blind to the past, we're blind to the future," Miller said.

Sir John A. Macdonald statue removed

Actions to remove such statues have not been limited to the U.S. Protesters in Bristol, England, for example, toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the River Avon on Sunday. 

In recent years in Canada, the controversy over statues commemorating historical figures has tended to focus on their links to anti-Indigenous policies. There have been calls to change the names of schools, and bring down statues of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who commissioned residential schools, which are blamed for the cultural genocide of Indigenous people in Canada.

In 2018, a statue of the former prime minister was removed from the steps of Victoria city hall.

But other figures too have come under scrutiny. In 2018, Halifax removed a statue of Edward Cornwallis, who founded the city in 1749, over his proclamation offering a bounty to anyone who killed a Mi'kmaq person.

Calls have also gone out to change the name of Ryerson University, named after Egerton Ryerson, whose ideas also helped to influence the creation of Canada's residential schools system.

The federal government is currently looking at its own policies on how to address concerns with historical figures like Macdonald. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada is in the process of developing guidelines to determine how and under which circumstances a national historic designation may be removed.

"We have to reflect on our history and these are important conversations to have," said Moira Kelly, a spokesperson for Jonathan Wilkinson, the minister responsible for Parks Canada, in an email to CBC. 

"It is important, at all times, to reflect on the past in the context of the present."

However, even before the death of Floyd, controversy was brewing over institutions and streets in Canada named after figures with links to slavery.

In 2018, a statue of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was removed from the steps of Victoria city hall. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Dalhousie University was named after George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, also known as Lord Dalhousie. Ramsay was known to be pro-slavery and made disparaging remarks about Black refugees from the War of 1812, who settled in Nova Scotia.

But a panel in 2018 recommended against a name change, saying the school is no longer associated with Ramsay.

However, in Toronto earlier this year, Russell Street, named after an Upper Canada politician and judge who opposed abolition, was changed to Ursula Franklin, who was an experimental physicist and professor of metallurgy at the University of Toronto.

Last month, the board of governors at the University of New Brunswick voted to strip George Duncan Ludlow's name from the school's law faculty building in Fredericton because of his connections to slavery and the abuse of Indigenous people.

The death of Floyd seems to have sparked more such action in Canada. An online petition is seeking to change the name of Russell, a town southeast of Ottawa.

But Andrea Davis, chair and co-ordinator of the Black Canadian Studies Certificate at York University, said a distinction must be made between Confederate statues and some street names in Canada.

Protesters pull down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest rally on College Green in Bristol, England on Sunday in response to the recent killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. (Ben Birchall/PA/The Associated Press)

Davis said removing those Confederate statues was long overdue and served as a reminder that the freedom of Blacks in the U.S  had boundaries and limits. She said those statues revealed that the Southerners who had gone to war against the North and tried to secede had a greater place in that state than Blacks. 

Removing monuments like that of Lee would have a "real tangible and immediate effect," she said. 

But changing of a street name, for example, where most people don't know the history or even remark on the change, is "more symbolic.

"And we need to be careful that we're not just making or just having knee-jerk responses," she said.

"I think what I would like to see alongside those moves, if we decide to go in that direction, is to also have deeper, more thoughtful responses that address the root of the erasure."

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press, Frances Willick