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 by members of the public 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 was involved in delaying the abolition of the transatlantic 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. The briefing note also proposed that the City look at how systematic racism and discrimination may be embedded in other City assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.

Read the briefing note.

Report to Executive Committee & City Council

Staff prepared a report that was presented to the Executive Committee at its meeting on September 23 and was adopted without amendment. City Council adopted the report’s recommendations on September 30, 2020 with amendments.

Read the Responding to the Dundas Street Renaming Petition – Report for Action.

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 systemic 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.

In 1776, Dundas 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 transatlantic slave trade was amended by Dundas.

Dundas’ amendment – to end slavery on a gradual basis – was adopted in the House of Commons, which then determined the end date should be 1796. However, the House of Lords did not consent to the motion and resolutions. It would be 1807 before the Slave Trade Act was enacted. As a result of this delay, more than half a million Africans were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, many to British colonies.

The intentions and actions of Simcoe and Dundas must be considered in the context of the devastating impact of the transatlantic slave trade 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 the annals of recorded human history….

From 1501 to 1830, four Africans crossed the Atlantic for every one European, making the demographics of the Americas in that era more of an extension of the African diaspora than a European one. The legacy of this migration is still evident today… 

Interpreting the role and legacy of Henry Dundas in the abolition and preservation of slavery is complicated. While Dundas made statements opposing slavery, his “gradualist” motion marked him as no more than a moderate anti-slavery reformer. His motivations for taking this stance should be considered, including his connections to British West Indian economic interests and the possibility that his compromise motion might have been more acceptable to decision-makers than immediate abolition. The parliamentary context within which Dundas operated is also important. Dundas’ amendment was blocked by the House of Lords, further obstructing social change and perpetuating slavery.

While there is no evidence that Dundas personally owned slaves or profited directly from the slave trade, his “gradualist” motion was a rebuff to immediate abolition. As a powerful Cabinet minister, he would have influenced decisions around the abolition question. Whether Dundas is viewed cynically or as a pragmatist, his actions from 1792 onward contributed to the perpetuation of the crime against humanity of enslaving human beings.

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 delivered a report to the Executive Committee meeting on September 23, 2020 that:

  • Fully assessed 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

  • Estimated 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, outlined 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, proposed 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).

Read the Responding to the Dundas Street Renaming Petition – Report for Action.

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.

A report with recommendations from the City Manager was presented to Executive Committee on September 23 and was adopted without amendment. City Council adopted the report’s recommendations with amendments on September 30, 2020.

The City will now move forward with the report’s recommendations, which include:

  • undertaking Round 1 of the Dundas Street consultation and communications plan
  • report back to the Executive Committee in the first quarter of 2021 on the consultation findings and recommendations relating to:
    • a preferred option for responding to the petition to rename Dundas Street and, by extension, addressing other civic assets with the Dundas name;
    • a work plan with estimated costs to implement the preferred option;
    • revisions to the City’s commemorative policies and programs, including the Property Naming Policy, the Street Naming Policy, and the Public Art and Monuments Donation Policy, and programs relating to civic honours, awards, and tributes; and
    • an overall commemorative framework for the City, including guiding principles for naming/renaming and other forms of recognition, developed in consultation with City divisions, agencies, and corporations.

Beyond Dundas Street

City Council has directed that no new applications to name or rename streets or other civic properties (including parks) or requests to remove City monuments received on or after October 1, 2020 be considered until the review of policies and programs has been completed. This direction applies to those agencies which are City boards under the City of Toronto Act, while the Board of Health, Police Services Board and Public Library Board are requested to comply with this direction.