Toronto moves to rename Dundas Street over slavery ties


The City of Toronto will convene a community advisory committee made up of Black and Indigenous leaders to provide input on what to rename Dundas Street.

The renaming will extend to TTC stations, street and highway signs, Bike Share stations and parking facilities as well as Yonge-Dundas Square, following a vote of the executive committee Tuesday. The city estimates it will cost between $5.1 million to $6.3 million to make the changes, which involve helping Dundas Street businesses that may have to rename their stores.

The plan comes in response to a petition signed by some 14,000 people noting the efforts of Dundas Street’s namesake, Henry Dundas, to delay the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

According to historical records, Dundas opposed a bill tabled in 1792 calling for the immediate abolition of the slave trade. He proposed an amendment instead calling for the gradual abolition of slavery. Dundas’s amendment was adopted and a date for abolition was proposed for 1796, but the bill was never enacted by the House of Lords. It wasn’t until 1807 that slavery was officially abolished in the British colonies.

Some historians suggest Dundas’s reluctance to abolish slavery was motivated by “fear of radical change.” Others argue that Dundas’s amendment “effectively delayed abolition for nearly two decades.” They also point to the fact that as Secretary of War, Dundas was the architect of drafting slaves to serve in West Indian regiments as part of Britain’s colonization efforts. As Home Secretary, other historians say, Dundas played a key role “in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples.”

The petition to rename Dundas has led to a broader review of street names and monuments as well as commemorations to public figures that the city says fail to reflect Toronto’s Diversity Our Strength motto. A new framework for commemorating public figures is expected to be put before city council by spring 2022. 

As part of its review of Dundas Street, city staff have identified another 60 street names that may require renaming, including 12 streets named for former slave owners.

These include noteworthy streets like Jarvis, which is named after William Jarvis, a former deputy lieutenant of the county of York in 1794 and magistrate who owned six slaves. 

There are a number of Toronto streets named after Peter Russell (including Peter Street), a provincial administrator for Upper Canada who owned four slaves that worked his 100-acre farm known as Petersfield, which stretched from Queen to Bloor between Beverley and Huron.

Other former prominent figures who owned slaves but aren’t commemorated with street names, have connections to some of the city’s historical sites.

For example, Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Upper Canada’s solicitor general, lived with two slaves at his house at Wellington and York. Gray and one of his slaves were among the 20 passengers who died on the HMS Speedy in a storm on October 7, 1804 on Lake Ontario. Gray’s remaining slave went to live with Chief Justice William Dummer Powell, one of Upper Canada’s first lawyers. The Powell residence was near the northeast corner of York and Front, now the site of the Royal York Hotel. 

Similarly, the current site of the King Edward Hotel at King and Toronto was occupied by a jail where slaves were imprisoned as punishment by their owners. According to research conducted by Natasha Henry of the Ontario Black History Society, Russell commissioned the building of the jail.

Then there’s Simcoe Street and Simcoe Park, named after John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada.

Simcoe introduced the Act Against Slavery to ban the importation of slaves to Upper Canada. But that did not prevent his close associates – many of them wealthy landowners – from keeping slaves.

At the time, six out of the 16 elected members of the Upper Canada Legislative Assembly (1792–96) were slave owners or had family members who owned slaves. Among them was François Baby, a member of one of Upper Canada’s most prominent slave-owning families. His father Jacques James Baby, for whom Baby Point in Toronto is named, owned some 20 Black and Indigenous slaves, some of whom were handed down to François and his brother after his father’s death.

Among other prominent street names on the city’s list for review are:

Alexander Street, Alexander Place, Wood Street – Named for Alexander Wood a magistrate in Upper Canada whose recent connection to Indian Residential Schools has created calls for his statue in the gay village to be taken down. 

Castle Frank Road, Castle Frank Crescent – The summer homestead of John Graves Simcoe was named for his son Francis. A marker was erected in Prince Edward Viaduct Parkette in 1954 to commemorate the original site of the Castle Frank cabin.

Gladstone Avenue – Named after William Ewert Gladstone, a former PM of the UK whose inaugural speech as an elected Tory was a defence of West Indian sugar plantation slave owners. 

Yonge Street, Yonge Blvd – Canada’s longest street (and its affluent North York counterpart) is named after George Yonge, a friend of Simcoe who never actually stepped foot in North America. But his aristocratic bearing and tenure as a governor of Cape Colony in South Africa, where he ignored the law abolishing slavery, won him the nickname “Lofty Twaddler.”

Maitland Street, Maitland Place – Named after Peregrine Maitland, a former lieutenant governor of Upper Canada and early advocate of Indian Residential Schools. 

Vaughan Road –  Named after Benjamin Vaughan, the Jamaica-born doctor and legislator who as an MP in the UK spoke out against the abolition of slavery. He would later change his position, reasoning that it would give slaves an inducement not to rebel.

Wellesley Avenue, Wellesley Place, Wellesley Street – Named after the first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, a soldier in the Napoleonic Wars who would later served as PM in the UK. He opposed reform of the UK’s electoral system and giving the vote to Jewish men. His government was ousted in 1830, two years after taking office. 

According to City of Toronto media relations spokesperson Kris Scheuer, not all street names on the city’s list will necessarily need to be changed.

“Rather, the purpose of this document is to track street names that have already been questioned in the media, community forums or academic studies, or have been reviewed or changed in other Canadian cities. Like with Dundas Street, a review, based on historic research and community engagement, would need to be undertaken before a change to a name is considered.”

Scheuer says that “Depending on the results of this review, a range of actions could be taken, including renaming, providing additional context through plaques or signage, or concluding that no further action is required.”




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