Renaming Toronto’s Dundas Street: An ‘important first step’ or wasteful expense?

For some people, renaming Toronto’s Dundas Street is a necessary step to confront the history of a city built in part by individuals connected to the British Empire’s transatlantic slave trade.

Others say the estimated $8.6-million cost of renaming the 23-kilometre thoroughfare is a wasteful expense for a city facing a financial crisis, including a looming budget shortfall estimated at $1.5 billion.

The renaming looks set to move forward after Toronto’s new mayor, Olivia Chow, voiced support for the project earlier this month, with her spokesman Shirven Rezvany endorsing it as a “response to community wishes.”

But while taking questions from reporters on Monday, Ontario’s Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy appeared to question the wisdom of that decision.

When asked if the province would be giving Toronto more money to cover the budget shortfall, Bethlenfalvy said, “we’ve been there for Toronto, we’ve put in billions of dollars to support Toronto… and I would just ask the mayor to look at some things like renaming Dundas Street.”

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“Is that the priority that she wants to fund? And if they’ve got money to do that, then that’s the will of council. So, that’s something I’ll leave to the mayor and I’m sure we’ll sit down at some point,” he said.

Dundas Street, which runs east-west through Toronto’s south end, is named after Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, an active politician from 1770s to the early 1800s, when the British parliament was debating slavery abolition motions.

There is dispute surrounding Dundas’s role in the propagation of the slave trade.

Melanie Newton, co-chair of the city council advisory committee looking at the renaming issue who has studied Dundas’s legacy, said that as Britain was weighing abolition, “Dundas intervened and introduced a motion for ‘gradual abolition.'”

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“It was supported by slave owners and slave traders… who knew there was eventually going to be abolition,” she said in an interview.

Newton said Dundas’s motion aimed “to sustain slavery without slave trading in the long run,” and the ongoing debate gave slave owners time for trafficking more Black people, particularly young people of child-bearing age, to sustain enslaved populations.

A descendent of Dundas, Bobby Dundas, the 10th Viscount Melville, has argued against that on social media and has told British media that Dundas was actually an abolitionist who was trying to be strategic with the “gradual abolition” motion.

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Newton said her research and the work of other historians has discovered otherwise.

“Some might think that’s an abolitionist position but it was very much actually about securing the long-term future of slavery without human trafficking,” Newton said, adding that the case supporting the street’s renaming is clear.

“We live in a democratic society but we move through streets that celebrate white supremacy silently by their very names,” said Newton, who is also a history professor at the University of Toronto.

“It really is fundamentally undemocratic to not consider renaming, or revisiting those kinds of names…. if we also acknowledge that slavery and colonial genocide have ongoing legacies which we know they do.”

She added that the cost of renaming Dundas Street is a small fraction of Toronto’s approximately $16.17-billion operating budget.

The City of Toronto’s statement on the issue references debate about Dundas’s “motivation,” but concludes that “the consequences of delaying the abolition of the slave trade are clear.”

“Whether Dundas is viewed cynically or as a pragmatist, his actions and those of the British government he served contributed to the perpetuation of the enslavement of human beings.”

It says renaming the street is moving forward, despite “the significant budget pressures due to provincial and federal governments not providing anticipated COVID funding.”

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Ahead of the expected renaming, a 20-person committee made up of residents, ward councillors and business owners has been tasked with inviting “historians and community leaders specializing in Black and Indigenous history and culture” to propose new names.

The advisory committee has chosen to focus on names that celebrate the stories of Black Torontonians.

For Andrew Lochhead, a PhD candidate who studies street names and historic sites at Toronto Metropolitan University, an eventual renaming of Dundas Street would mark an achievement.

Lochhead launched Toronto’s debate on Dundas Street with a petition in 2020.  After thousands of signatures, it grabbed the attention of then-mayor John Tory, who supported the proposal.

In a phone interview, Lochhead said he got the idea for the petition after learning that protesters were pushing for the removal of a Henry Dundas statue in Edinburgh, Scotland during global anti-racism protests sparked by the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“I thought to myself, if Edinburgh is having this conversation, then it’s really important that we have that conversation here in Toronto because Edinburgh is talking about a monument that’s 152 feet high but we have a monument that’s over 23 kilometres long here in Toronto,” he said.

“To put that into perspective, that’s like a statue that would be something like 200 Great Pyramids tall.”

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Newton and Lochhead said Dundas Street was a route already established by Indigenous Peoples living near the ports of Lake Ontario.

“So not only does the name commemorate a colonizer, but the road itself also represents the colonization of Indigenous knowledge,” Lochhead added.

Renaming the street, he said, is “an important first step in signalling, on the behalf of our city’s government, that they’re willing to tackle these issues head on, and they’re willing to put not only time and effort, but also dedicate money to addressing these concerns.”

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