Farewell to ‘Dundas Street.’ Now make sure renaming promotes unity, not division
June 30, 2021
In Montreal, a city with more than its share of history, the major downtown thoroughfares include Boulevard De Maisonneuve, Rue St-Antoine and Boulevard René-Lévesque.
Years ago those same streets carried different names: Western Ave., Craig St., and Dorchester Blvd.
Times changed; the English dominance of Montreal’s public life was challenged, then overthrown. And that was reflected in new names for important streets -- French names in a city that wanted to present a French face to the world.
Naturally, some were upset. But that quickly faded away, and after a few years it seemed as if the new names had always been there.
Which brings us to Toronto and the case of Dundas St., a major route that runs from the east end of the city out through Mississauga to the west. City staff recommend changing the name, and Mayor John Tory agrees.
Renaming place names can be a fraught exercise, but this one is a slam-dunk. The street is named for Henry Dundas, a Scottish politician who never even visited Toronto, which was just a tiny colonial outpost when he was in his heyday more than 200 years ago.
We bet not one Torontonian in a thousand, maybe 10,000, knew a thing about Henry Dundas (a.k.a. the 1st Viscount Melville) until a petition to change the street name was launched. It challenges Dundas’s right to be commemorated in our public spaces on the grounds that he delayed the abolition of the slave trade.
Let the historians argue over that one (there’s a counter-argument to the effect that he was just a canny political operator who did what had to be done back then to get an anti-slave trade law passed).
Regardless of where the truth of that lies, Dundas’s connection to Toronto and Ontario is tenuous, though you wouldn’t know it by the fact that his name is on a major street, two subway stations, a big downtown square, a rural county and a whole town (Dundas, Ont.) He owes that to the fact that he was a friend of John Graves Simcoe, first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, who was happy to sprinkle his well-placed pal’s name freely about.
So by all means let’s say goodbye and good riddance to “Dundas Street.” After a little while, it won’t be missed, as the Montreal examples show. The thornier question is what comes next.
Let’s make sure the process of coming up with a new name, one more relevant to Toronto’s modern reality, is a unifying, not a divisive, one.
That can’t be taken for granted. We had a taste of what can go wrong recently when the York Region District School Board agreed to rename a secondary school that carried the name of Benjamin Vaughan, a 19th-century slave owner.
The board quickly agreed on erasing the Vaughan name, but the process of renaming became mired in controversy. The local Black community wanted one name while some in the Jewish community resisted their choice. Fortunately the board came together on naming the school after a Somali-Canadian journalist, but the debate could have turned very sour.
The point of renaming Dundas St., and potentially as many as 60 other problematic streets identified in the Toronto city staff report, is to promote reconciliation. It’s part of facing up to the legacy of racial injustice in our past, with the goal of moving forward. It’s not to replay old grievances on a new stage.
So that process will have to be carefully managed as it unfolds. Those in charge should also resist the temptation to eliminate every name that gets on a list. The staff report says names should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that’s the right approach.
In Montreal, not every English street name was eliminated. Far from it; the city’s past was not “erased,” as some fear might happen once name-changing gets underway. But the balance was shifted in an unmistakable way to reflect new realities and new sensitivities. Toronto can learn from that.