The Petition to Rename Dundas Street

Discussions on racial injustices, inequality and anti-Black racism are at the forefront around the world in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent events. These conversations have resulted in scrutiny of the origins and history of monuments, street names, parks and buildings across our city. They also led to the creation of an online petition calling for Dundas Street to be renamed.

The petition, presented to City Council on June 27, requests that Dundas Street be renamed because it was named after Scottish politician Henry Dundas, who is accused of being instrumental in delaying the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, causing more than half a million more Black people to be enslaved in the British Empire. The petition to rename Dundas Street argues that street names and monuments should “reflect our values and priorities.”

The City’s Response

In response to the petition, Mayor John Tory asked City Manager Chris Murray to form a working group of staff, including the City’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit and the Indigenous Affairs Office, to examine the issue and report back.

City staff prepared a briefing note addressing the request to rename Dundas Street, laying out four possible options, and proposing that the City should look at how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in other City assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.

Staff will work on a report that will be presented to the Executive Committee at its meeting on September 23. Once City Council has made a decision on how to respond to the Dundas renaming petition, staff will implement its direction.

Read the briefing note.

In keeping with the City of Toronto’s motto, Diversity Our Strength, the City is committed to taking action to address anti-Black racism – as well as racism against Indigenous and equity-seeking communities – in order to build a city that is more inclusive, progressive and reflective of the values of its diverse members.

This commitment includes City Council’s unanimous adoption in 2017 of the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism (CABR) and the formation of a CABR unit, as well as the 2010 Statement of Commitment to Aboriginal Communities, ongoing commitment to truth and reconciliation and the creation of an Indigenous Affairs Office.

Taking steps to right wrongs, challenge systematic institutionalized racism, and build a more inclusive Toronto is more important than ever. Addressing the historical legacy of Dundas Street is one of these steps.

The name “Dundas Street” has existed in what is now known as Toronto from at least the early 1800s. City staff have confirmed that the road was named in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, in honour of Scottish politician Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville.

Henry Dundas is accused of being instrumental in delaying the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, causing more than half a million more Black people to be enslaved in the British Empire.

Dundas’ legacy is complicated. On one hand, he made statements opposing slavery and in 1776 he represented a man who had been purchased as a slave in Jamaica and taken to Scotland. In winning the case, Dundas helped establish the principle that slavery did not exist under Scots law and that enslaved people living in Scotland could claim their freedom. However, in 1792, William Wilberforce’s motion in the British House of Commons to immediately abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was amended by Dundas. Dundas’ proposal – to amend Wilberforce’s motion and end slavery on a gradual basis – was adopted in the House of Commons, which then determined the end date should be 1796, four years later. Critically, the House of Lords did not consent to the motion and resolutions. It would be 1807 before the Slave Trade Act was enacted.

Dundas’ actions had a devastating impact on Black lives and culture. As the United Nations has noted:

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade was the largest forced migration in history, and undeniably one of the most inhumane. The extensive exodus of Africans spread to many areas of the world over a 400-year period and was unprecedented in recorded human history.

From 1501 to 1830, four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every one European. The devastating legacy of this migration is still evident today.

Any decision to rename a major arterial road like Dundas requires careful consideration of its potential impacts and an equitable and inclusive public process that responds to the community at-large and addresses neighbourhood considerations as appropriate.

The process should be coordinated across the City government to review the full range of Dundas-named assets. It should also ensure that there is consistent community consultation and communications.

The City Manager commits to delivering a report to the Executive Committee meeting on September 23, 2020 that will:

  • Fully assess four options for responding to the petition:
    • do nothing *
    • retain the legal street names with additional interpretation and recognitions
    • retain the legal street names but rename those civic assets with Dundas in their name, except TTC
    • rename the streets and other civic assets now carrying the Dundas name.

 * The City is not recommending the do nothing approach

  • Estimate the costs that would be incurred by businesses, organizations, property owners and residents with a street address on Dundas Street as well as any service or directory that maps or shows addresses (e.g., the PATH system)
  • For the renaming option, outline a community engagement strategy and change management process that simultaneously addresses in an integrated manner all civic assets with the Dundas name (streets, parks, TTC, Toronto Public Library and Yonge-Dundas Square) by the end of 2021
  • Beyond Dundas Street, propose a framework to more broadly understand and respond to how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in City assets, commemorative programs and naming policies. This might ultimately touch all named City streets, parks and facilities, public monuments and civic awards and honours, potentially leading to a variety of actions (for example, renaming streets, removing monuments, revoking awards or reinterpreting any of these).

The Dundas renaming petition is one of many global efforts currently underway to confront anti-Black racism and discrimination against other communities. City staff are looking at how other jurisdictions are responding to proposals to rename streets and facilities and to remove monuments.

As of mid-July, 37 case studies from 2017 to 2020 have been identified, drawn from Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Spain and Australia. Key findings, with Canadian cities highlighted in brackets, are:

  • 21 municipalities have changed the street/community name (Montreal); 12 did not (Kitchener)
  • 2 municipalities issued anti-racism statements but have not yet made further changes (Mississauga)
  • 6 are looking into other ways to honour Indigenous and equity-seeking communities (Halifax)
  • 8 have established advisory committees, and 15 included public consultation (Halifax)
  • 6 removed monuments (Victoria)
  • 4 kept monuments but added new interpretative plaques (none in Canada)
  • 9 case studies included costs associated with this work (Halifax, Victoria)
  • 3 street naming cases noted the size of the street and the number of residents affected (Fort Frances); most streets were not main thoroughfares unlike Dundas Street
  • The Canadian government announced that a Coast Guard ship will be renamed

A monument to Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, Scotland, has fuelled intense public debate as to whether it should be removed or reinterpreted. On July 13, 2020, signs were erected by the City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh World Heritage announcing the text that will appear on a new permanent plaque accompanying the monument. The text reads:

At the top of this neoclassical column stands a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811). He was the Scottish Lord Advocate and an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a contentious figure, provoking controversies that resonate to this day. While Home Secretary in 1792 and first Secretary of State for War in 1796 he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland, and both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples. He was impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money, and, although acquitted, he never held public office again. Despite this, the monument before you to Henry Dundas was funded by voluntary contribution from British naval officers, petty officers, seamen, and marines and erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.

In 2020 this plaque was dedicated to the memory of the more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.

Addressing the Specifics of Dundas Street

Any decision to rename a major arterial road like Dundas requires careful consideration of its potential impacts and an inclusive public process that responds to the community at-large and addresses local considerations as appropriate. City staff will continue to gather information on:

  • Street and facility renaming and monument removal experiences in other jurisdictions
  • Affected stakeholders in relation to Dundas Street, including Black and Indigenous organizations and communities, BIAs, residents’ associations and local heritage organizations
  • The financial impacts of renaming Dundas Street on the assets of City divisions, agencies and corporations.

Staff will continue to reach out to subject matter experts on the questions surrounding Henry Dundas, including his motivations for taking a gradualist approach to ending slavery and the long-term impact of his actions on Black lives. It’s critical that any decision by City Council affecting Dundas Street be based on sound historical research and analysis. At the same time, staff will consult with human rights experts and/or legal historians to ensure the issue is properly framed within an equity framework.

Staff will more fully assess the four options identified (do nothing; retain the legal street names with additional interpretation and recognitions; retain the legal street names but rename those civic assets with Dundas in their name, except TTC; and rename the streets and other civic assets now carrying the Dundas name).

They will also estimate the costs that would be incurred by businesses, organizations, property owners, and residents with a street address on Dundas as well as any service or directory that maps or shows addresses (e.g., the PATH system).

Beyond Dundas Street

An approach to reviewing City assets, programs and policies with a view to understanding and responding to how systematic racism and discrimination may be embedded within them will be developed for Council’s consideration. This review might ultimately touch all named City streets, parks and facilities, public monuments and civic awards and honours.