Councillor calls for change to London’s street naming process in wake of Plantation Road petition

Plantation Road is a small street in the city's Oakridge neighbourhood. via Google Maps

Months after city politicians endorsed a commitment to “eradicate anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and people of colour oppression,” a motion going before councillors on Tuesday is looking to align the way streets are named in London with that promise.

The motion from Ward 12 Councillor Elizabeth Peloza, to be discussed by the Civic Works Committee, calls on city staff to review the bylaws, policies and guidelines surrounding street naming and to report back on changes that could be made to support and implement council’s June pledge.

It comes on the heels of a much-publicized petition calling for Plantation Road, a residential street in west London, to be renamed given the word’s historical correlation to slavery.

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Ten-year-old Lyla Wheeler has been pushing for the name change for more than a year, and has collected more than 4,100 signatures through a petition.

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Wheeler was compelled to request the change after learning about plantations in a book about the Underground Railroad, the secret network that brought some 30,000 enslaved men, women and children to relative freedom starting in the mid-1800s.

The then-nine-year-old reached out to her councillor, Steve Lehman, and went door-to-door in her neighbourhood to try and drum up support for changing the name. (One neighbour she reached out to replied that she should find more “age-appropriate” things to do, according to the London Free Press.)

“She was quietly working away on it for a little while, and then after everything that happened with George Floyd, she said, ‘OK, enough is enough. What else can I do?'” said Wheeler’s mother, Kristin.

Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes on May 25 as Floyd repeatedly said he could not breathe and as bystanders pleaded with officers to help him. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. Three other officers are also charged in Floyd’s death.

“So (Lyla) started the petition, and from that, she gained a lot of support here in London on our street, as far as Toronto — the Caribbean community in Toronto is incredibly supportive of her.”

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Speaking with 980 CFPL on Monday, Peloza said she became aware of Wheeler’s request in the spring of 2019 when it first made headlines.

After it re-entered the local news cycle earlier this year, Peloza says she was asked by members of her ward to look into the matter.

“I started to look into it, you know, what does it take? What is our process? And I started to find barriers to accessing city hall, and gaps of what I feel are in our policies,” she said.

These policies that govern these ideas are from the early ’90s, so part of this motion is to accept Ms. Wheeler’s petition and put it through the new review process that we’re making.”

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Getting a street renamed in London is a complicated process that costs at least $512 just to file an application and have the city look at it, Peloza says. That application would then be reviewed for logistical ramifications, followed by a public participation meeting, and then a council vote.

On top of that, the applicant would also need to fork over $200 for every resident on the street to reimburse them for the hassle of changing their address, in addition to costs relating to the replacement of signage and other changes. A french immersion public school run by the Thames Valley District School Board is also located along Plantation.

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Peloza says she isn’t opposed to the cost factor of renaming a street, except in circumstances such as those raised in Wheeler’s petition.

“Does this road have racial connections? Is it upsetting to the community? And how do we have those conversations? Right now there’s no avenue to have them with civic administration,” she said.

“How are other municipalities handling this? What are other ways we could do to address the problem that could be suitable from the Black community and people of colour and the Indigenous community that would help to educate people and not just simply change the name.”

In her motion, Peloza is also asking that city staff draw up a list of potential street names that reflect community suggestions and the contributions of London’s historic Black families, Indigenous communities, and people of colour.

The councillor’s request, and Wheeler’s petition, have the backing of the African Canadian Federation of London and Area. In a letter to council, the non-profit’s president, John Kok, writes that Peloza’s motion “will allow the renaming of streets that bring back the ugly face of the past which treated Black people inhumanely.”

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“She is a remarkable, remarkable kid. This all came from her and from how she feels,” Kristin Wheeler said of her daughter.

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She has been working for so long, and I’ll say to her, ‘you know, are you tired of this?’ And she’ll say, ‘well, Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t tired. He kept going, and so am I.”

On her petition, Wheeler suggested the street be renamed Josiah Hensen Way, after a man who was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped to what is now Ontario in 1830. Hensen founded a settlement and a trade-labour school for American fugitives freed from enslavement in Chatham-Kent.

The London-area’s connection to American slavery has been well documented, particularly it’s link to the Underground Railroad and the sizable population of Black refugees who settled here from the southern U.S. in the mid 1800s.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church, erected along Thames Street in 1848, served as a sanctuary for American slaves who built homes and resided in what is now London’s SoHo neighbourhood.

Land speculation brought on by the construction of the Great Western Railway in the 1850s brought wealth to the area, making it the richest Black community in Canada, according to the London Free Press.

The church, later known as the Fugitive Slave Chapel, was threatened with demolition in 2013 and was relocated the following year next to Beth Emmanuel Church on Grey Street, constructed in 1869 by the congregation of African Methodist Episcopal.

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— With files from Jacquelyn Lebel, Kamyar Razavi, and The Associated Press

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