Calls continue to rename Ontario municipalities amid concerns over historical figures’ racist pasts

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Many are calling for the renaming of several Ontario municipalities whose namesakes are controversial historical figures with racist pasts, including Vaughan, Kitchener and Russell Township.

Advocates say those individuals, including ones who were pro-slavery, have troubling histories that can no longer be accepted within their communities.

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“It is shameful that we uphold these people as heroes in our communities by naming cities after them and declaring civic holidays in honour of them,” says one petition to change the name of the City of Vaughan.

The calls come amid discussions about and protests against anti-Black racism, in part prompted by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after he knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.

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In Ontario, conversations surrounding anti-Black racism and police brutality have most recently centred around the cases of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who fell to her death from a 24th-floor Toronto balcony after police were called, and D’Andre Campbell, a Black man who was fatally shot by police in Brampton in April.

While there have been calls advocating for Vaughan, Kitchener and Russell Township to change their names, the municipalities say they will not move forward with this decision, although Russell Township is looking at possibly finding a new namesake.

City of Vaughan

The City of Vaughan is named after Benjamin Vaughan, a pro-slavery British politician. There have been two petitions set up to change the name of the municipality, one of which has garnered over 250 signatures and another of which has garnered nearly 450 signatures.

On Wednesday, Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua said he’s not looking at changing the name of the municipality, although the August civic holiday that was locally called Benjamin Vaughan Day was renamed John Graves Simcoe Day on Tuesday.

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“I really don’t stand for changing the name of the City of Vaughan because of Benjamin Vaughan,” Bevilacqua said. “Benjamin Vaughan never stepped foot in this city.”

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The local mayor said residents have a strong connection to the City of Vaughan and that they’re proud of it.

“They built it,” Bevilacqua said. “I’m not going to strip away a community and a place of belonging just because of Benjamin Vaughan.”

The Vaughan mayor said he changed the name of the August civic holiday because Benjamin Vaughan doesn’t reflect the values of the city.

“Prior to this, I announced a task force on diversity,” Bevilacqua said. “We also have a staff inclusion charter. We have a lengthy list of things that we are doing to always be mindful of the importance of people feeling comfortable in this city.”

City of Kitchener

The City of Kitchener is named after Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a British Earl who established concentration camps during the Boer War. Recently, a petition was set up to change the name of the municipality. It has attracted almost 300 signatures so far.

On Tuesday, a city spokesperson told Global News that the municipality is not looking into a name change at this time.

“It’s not surprising that recent world events have us contemplating the origins of our city’s name,” Shawn Falcao, a Kitchener spokesperson, said in an email.

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“While we in no way condone, diminish or forget (Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s) actions, we know that more than a century after our citizens chose this name for their community, Kitchener has become so much more than its historic connection to a British field marshal.”

Falcao said today the city’s name is not a celebration of Kitchener’s “hurtful legacy” but of the “many hundreds of thousands of people who came after him.”

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“The city has prioritized making concrete changes, starting with our own organization, to dismantle systemic barriers and eliminate anti-Black racism,” Falcao said, adding the city will be creating a corporate equity and inclusion policy.

Falcao said the municipality will also develop an equity, inclusion and diversity training program and establish a strategy to collect and report publicly de-aggregated demographic data of staff, volunteers and service users.

Russell Township

Russell Township is named after Peter Russell, a politician who owned slaves and delayed the abolition of slavery. A petition was set up recently to change the name of the township. It’s garnered nearly 1,800 signatures so far.

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In response to concerns over Russell’s legacy, local mayor Pierre Leroux said the township is looking at potentially keeping its name but changing its namesake. He brought a notice of motion to council on Monday that proposes a vetting committee be established that would review names of people who could be better namesakes.

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“The only condition is that the first, middle or last name has to be Russell,” he told Global News Wednesday, adding that he sees this moment as an educational opportunity.

“We’re not just sweeping this under the rug, and I think just simply stating that’s no longer our namesake is not enough — we have to actually do more,” he added.

“I can see this as being a community event in the sense that schools can be teaching in class who Peter Russell was, why the town is looking at changing the namesake.”

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One reason the township isn’t looking at changing its name, Leroux said, is because many local businesses and services have built a proud brand around the word “Russell.”

“The people that have lived here all their lives are proud to say, ‘We’re from Russell Township,'” Leroux said. “All of a sudden you take that away, it’s a lot more complicated than saying, ‘Oh, we’re changing the name.'”

The motion to change Russell Township’s namesake will be discussed at the township’s next council meeting on July 6.

‘Changes of names have to come with an education’

People advocating to change the names of municipalities signal how individuals are moving toward not accepting what was previously considered appropriate, according to Carl James, the Jean Augustine chair in education, community and diaspora at York University’s education faculty.

“Now, we are more informed. We have a different kind of society,” James said. “These changes of names have to come with an education.”

James said every institution must be involved in the education of racism, including families, schools and government.

“Simply removing the names, I think, is a nice performance,” he said. “It’s like sending a nice apology letter, but you maintain the system, so just simply changing the name is not going to be enough, and of course, should not be enough.”

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“We need to create a different kind of society, and I think this is what this period is asking us to do,” James said.

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