Former Toronto Mayors Question Dundas Street Renaming: A Controversial Debate
In a recent development that has stirred controversy, three former Toronto mayors—Art Eggleton, David Crombie, and John Sewell—have penned a letter to the current mayor, Olivia Chow, and the city council, urging them to reconsider the decision made in 2021 to rename Dundas Street. The decision to rename the major thoroughfare was prompted by a petition signed by thousands of individuals in 2020, citing the historical figure Henry Dundas‘s alleged contribution to delaying the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century.
A Historical Perspective: The 2021 decision to rename Dundas Street came after thorough research informed by staff interviews with 20 experts and a review of academic research. The research concluded that Henry Dundas’s actions, as a key minister in the British government, indeed contributed to the perpetuation of enslavement. While some historians have debated his intentions, the report concluded that his endorsement of gradual rather than immediate abolition of the slave trade, through amending a 1792 resolution, had significant implications for the continuation of the practice.
Former Mayors’ Standpoint: In the letter, the former mayors challenge the prevailing interpretation of the research and question the practicality of the renaming decision. They characterize Henry Dundas as a “committed abolitionist” who worked to advocate for interim measures that would ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery. Their argument is based on his endorsement of gradual abolition and his representation of Joseph Knight, a case that affirmed enslaved individuals’ right to claim freedom in Scotland.
Criticism and Response: Critics of the former mayors’ stance point out that historical evidence contradicts their interpretation. They argue that Dundas’s actions were not aligned with the values of abolitionism and that his measures had far-reaching consequences. Andrew Lochhead, who initiated the petition for renaming, expressed disappointment in the former mayors’ objections, highlighting the impact of Dundas’s actions on marginalized communities.
Cost and Community Impact: The cost of renaming Dundas Street is estimated at $8.6 million. This financial aspect has also ignited debates, with Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy questioning whether such a substantial expense is justified, considering other budgetary priorities.
City Council’s Decision: The renaming of Dundas Street has broader implications, as it extends beyond the name change itself. It involves renaming TTC subway stations, parks, library branches, and more. The decision was made in response to community wishes and a call for greater historical accuracy in acknowledging the impact of individuals linked to historical practices such as slavery.
The city has announced plans to release a short list of potential new names for Dundas Street, followed by community feedback and a decision-making process in early 2024. This decision is expected to be guided by updated information, including name options and cost estimates, to ensure a thorough and inclusive approach.
The controversy surrounding the renaming of Dundas Street highlights the complexities of acknowledging historical figures’ legacies, particularly in the context of practices that perpetuated injustice. As the debate continues, the city is navigating the challenge of balancing historical accuracy with practical considerations and community sentiment.