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.
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:
Following discovery sessions with Black, Indigenous and other local community members, extensive academic research and a review of over 400 global case studies, City Council voted to rename Dundas Street and other civic properties with the Dundas name. This decision furthers the City’s commitment to confronting anti-Black racism, advancing truth, reconciliation and justice, and building a more inclusive and equitable Toronto.
Council approved a renaming process led by a Community Advisory Committee of Black and Indigenous leaders, and community members living and working along Dundas Street residents and businesses. The Community Advisory Committee will develop a shortlist of new names for Dundas Street and other civic assets, which will be shared with the public for input, and submit final recommendations for consideration by City Council in 2023. The Committee will also help to develop a transition plan to support Dundas Street residents and businesses in preparation for the name change.
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 resolution 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 resolution. During the parliamentary debate, Dundas proposed an amendment qualifying support for the resolution 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 resolution. 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.” Though Dundas’ amendment was adopted and a date for abolition was proposed for 1796, the resolution was never enacted by the House of Lords.
In the years that followed, Dundas argued against other proposals for abolition, stating that abolition was not practical while Britain was at war with France. These arguments prioritized economic and military interests over human lives.
Whatever Dundas’ motivations may have been, the consequences of delaying the abolition of the slave trade are clear. Whether Dundas 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. It would be 1807 before the Slave Trade Act was finally passed. From 1792-1807, 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. While preparing the report that went to Council in September of 2020, City staff sought to identify best practices by researching how other jurisdictions around the world were responding to proposals to rename streets and facilities, and request 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.