The City Manager will report to the July 6 meeting of Executive Committee with recommendations for developing a new commemorative framework and a response to the Dundas Street renaming petition.
Discussions on racial justice and equality are at the forefront around the world in light of ongoing activism by Black, Indigenous and other equity-deserving communities. These conversations have led to many calls for change, including scrutiny of the origins and history of monuments, street and place names. They also led to the creation of an online petition signed by close to 14,000 members of the public calling for Dundas Street to be renamed. City Council has directed the City Manager to report back with a recommended response to the petition based on research and consultation.
Dundas Street is an example of a commemorative street name, honouring the legacy of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742-1811). Henry Dundas was a Scottish lawyer, politician, and one of British Prime Minister William Pitt’s most trusted and powerful ministers. Dundas also left behind a controversial legacy. The petition called for the street to be renamed because of Dundas’ role in delaying the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 1790s. It was not until 1807 that the Slave Trade Act was enacted, ending the slave trade in the British Empire. During this period, more than half a million more Black people were enslaved in British territories.
While staff develop a response to the Dundas Street petition for Council’s consideration, City Council has also requested that the City Manager review existing commemorative policies and programs, and develop a new framework to guide how the City commemorates public figures and events in place names and other civic assets. This review is intended to more broadly understand and respond to how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in other City assets and naming policies. This work has the potential to impact past decisions related to Toronto’s streets, parks, civic facilities, and monuments. A new commemorative framework will help guide the City’s decision-making on the range of responses and possible actions (for example, renaming streets, reinterpreting monuments, or concluding that no further action is required). It will also lay the foundation for a more inclusive and community-centred approach to naming and commemoration in the future.
Commemoration is an intentional act of acknowledging the memory of people, places, events and ideas. It can include positive and honorific celebrations of the past and present, as well as the tragic, controversial and shameful dimensions of history and culture. Public commemorations – including the naming of streets, parks and other civic properties, and representation in monuments and plaques – reflect community values by how we choose to collectively honour the past and shape the future.
The City of Toronto communicates a core value through its motto, “Diversity Our Strength”. In keeping with this motto, it is important that we strive to create public spaces that are welcoming and inclusive for all. The new commemorative framework will set out a process and principles to encourage greater equity, reconciliation and inclusion in place-making, promote a broader understanding of history and its legacy on communities, and confront the legacy of colonialism and systemic racism. More information about this framework will be included as part of the City Manager’s report to Executive Committee in July 2021.
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. The City Manager delivered a report to the Executive Committee meeting on September 23, 2020 that assessed four options for responding to the petition:
City Council adopted the report on September 30, with some amendments, directing the City Manager to undertake research and consultation to recommend a response to the petition. Read Council’s decision.
As a next step, the City Manager will report to the July 6, 2021 meeting of Executive Committee to seek Council direction on:
This report was delayed from the first quarter of 2021 to July 2021 to allow for more time to carefully review historical research and global case studies, and conduct initial discovery sessions with Black and Indigenous communities and local businesses.
City staff have reviewed published peer-reviewed academic research prepared by professional historians on Henry Dundas to understand his legacy and how it may impact Black and Indigenous communities in Toronto. Staff have also consulted with more than 20 academic experts knowledgeable in the areas of public history, Black Canadian studies, and public commemoration to inform the response to the petition and the Recognition Review project as a whole. As an educational resource for the public, staff have partnered with the Toronto Public Library to publish a reading list on Henry Dundas’ life and legacy, the history of Dundas Street, and the contemporary Black experience in Canada.
In 1792, independent Member of Parliament William Wilberforce brought a bill before the British House of Commons to immediately abolish the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. This proposal followed growing support for abolition among the British public, with a then-record 500 petitions being submitted to the House in support of Wilberforce’s bill. During the parliamentary debate, Dundas proposed an amendment qualifying support for the bill by adding the word “gradually”, so that it read that the slave trade “ought gradually to be abolished”. In his speech to parliament, Dundas explained that while he had “long entertained the same opinion … as to the abolition of the slave trade”, he “must consider how far it may be proper for [him] to give [his] assent” to the bill. He went on to describe how “this trade must ultimately be abolished, but by moderate measures which shall not invade the property of individuals, nor shock too suddenly the prejudices of our West India Islands”. In the years that followed, Dundas voted against other proposals for abolition, arguing that abolition was not practical while the nation was at war with France.
Whatever his motivations may have been, the consequences of Dundas’ actions are clear. Whether he 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. Though Dundas’ amendment was adopted and a date for abolition was proposed for 1796, the bill was never enacted by the House of Lords. It would be 1807 before the Slave Trade Act was finally passed. During this time, more than half a million Africans were enslaved and trafficked across the Atlantic, many to British colonies.
Read more on historical research on the legacy of Henry Dundas.
The Dundas renaming petition is one of many global efforts currently underway to confront anti-Black racism and discrimination against other communities. In order to identify best practices, staff are actively monitoring global developments to understand how other jurisdictions are responding to proposals to rename streets and facilities, and requests to remove monuments.
As of May 31, 2021, 430 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 summarized below.
Read more on global case studies.
The petition to rename Dundas Street has been the most prominent example of public calls for change about how we commemorate historic figures and events in Toronto. However, other commemorative street and place names have also been critiqued for honouring subjects that are linked to systemic racism and colonialism. Staff are aware of approximately 60 other street names, primarily small local roads, which could require further examination in the future, including at least 12 streets named after slave owners.
City Council has directed that no new applications to name or rename streets or other civic properties or requests to remove City monuments received on or after October 1, 2020 be considered until the review of commemorative policies and programs has been completed. While this hold remains in place, the City has an opportunity to consider an approach to addressing other issues related to naming and monuments in the future. The new commemorative framework being developed by City staff will help guide the City’s decision-making on the range of responses and possible actions for reviewing existing place names and civic assets.