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‘Racism is alive in Russell,’ says Black former resident amid name change debate

Peter Russell, an 18-century government official who delayed the abolition of slavery. Archives of Ontario

The issue of racism in Russell goes deeper than the eastern Ontario township’s namesake, says a former resident who says she faced regular discrimination growing up in the town.

Russell Township has been the subject of controversy in the past week for its ties to Peter Russell, the 18th-century government official after whom the town was named.

Russell was an administrator for what was then Upper Canada who delayed the abolition of slavery and himself owned slaves.

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Denis Agar, a former resident now living in British Columbia, started the online campaign to address his hometown’s racist legacy in a Facebook post last week. A petition calling for Russell to formally change its name emerged shortly after, garnering more than 1,500 signatures as of Monday.

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In response to competing calls from residents in favour of either changing or keeping the name, Pierre Leroux, Russell’s mayor, announced what he considered a compromise: naming the township after a different person named Russell.

The township will consider the proposal to officially change its namesake — but not the name — in a council meeting Monday evening.

READ MORE: Ontario township looks for new namesake, but will keep its name: mayor

“We don’t share the values, we never have shared the values, of Mr. Peter Russell, and we’re looking to move forward,” said Leroux.

But Caitlyn Dignard, a Black woman who grew up in Russell, says the proposal avoids addressing the real issues the town has with racism.

“Racism is alive in Russell,” she tells Global News.

Dignard, who is biracial, said she recalls facing discrimination in Russell as soon as she moved to the town in the first grade.

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Among the numerous attacks and microaggressions she said she faced in the town’s school system, she says teenagers on the bus home from school would throw candy at her head and call her the N-word.

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She says she “hardly knew what it meant at that point,” but the attacks drove home the difference she felt being Black in a largely white town.

“Things like that are really traumatic,” she said.

Racist behaviour like this would continue to follow her through high school, but when she approached administrators about the issue, she said she was asked to consider her own role in starting “girl drama” and serious action was never taken.

“It’s so frustrating to have experienced so much blatant anti-Blackness and gaslighting,” Dignard said.

“It’s always zero tolerance until something happens, and then it’s just swept under the rug.”

Now an Ottawa resident, Dignard said the regular experiences with racism were among the factors that pushed her and her family to move away from Russell two years ago.

Dignard said she never knew growing up that Russell was named after a slave owner, but is fervently in support of changing the name now that it has become public knowledge.

She doesn’t mince words on the proposal to keep the name but change the particular tribute.

“I hate it,” Dignard said.

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Addressing the town’s past without changing the actual name is a “Band-Aid” solution, she said.

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Leroux said part of the reason to keep the name is out of concern for family businesses in the township who have built their brands on Russell.

“And if you change the town name, what happens to all these organizations who’ve built up a reputation for being kindhearted loving people and incredible businesses? You’re saying, well, that name is by default still tied to this guy 200 years ago,” he said.

The business argument falls flat to Dignard.

“The township of Russell would rather just not spend money. And it hurts me to know that money is worth more than Black lives and safety and pain.”

She said if she were a high school student in Russell and the name was changed, it would have given her a sense of “peace.”

“I think if it were changed, I think there would be a lot more people curious about why it was changed and willing to educate themselves and do the work, which is something they were not taught in school,” she said.

Leroux said he hopes the proposal spurs school projects and campaigns from other members of the public advocating for their favourite Russells.

— With files from Canadian Press

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