Thanks to ongoing advocacy, global discussions are highlighting the importance of addressing racial justice and equality as a collective responsibility. 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 in summer 2020 signed by close to 14,000 members of the public calling for Dundas Street to be renamed.

Dundas Street is an example of a commemorative street name. It memorializes 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.

In December 2023, City Council approved renaming Yonge-Dundas Square to “Sankofa Square” along with the renaming of three other City assets carrying the Dundas name. Council also instructed the City Manager to pause work on the July 2021 decision to rename Dundas Street, until further direction is given by Council. 

Implementation and adoption of Sankofa Square is led by the Yonge-Dundas Square Board. They are currently in their planning and strategy phase. Rebranding is expected to be complete by the end of 2024. 

City Council also requested the Toronto Transit Commission Board rename Dundas subway station by the end of 2024, and Dundas West subway station to be renamed within the TTC’s 10-year capital plan, preferably by 2025. 

City Council directed that the Jane/Dundas Public Library be renamed by fall 2024. The Toronto Public Library Board are following their renaming policy and process. 

In response to the petition, a working group of staff was formed, 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: 

  • do nothing (which was not recommended by staff) 
  • 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. 

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 in July 2021. The decision furthered the City’s commitment to confronting anti-Black racism, advancing truth, reconciliation and justice, and building a more inclusive and equitable Toronto. Council also directed the City Manager to convene a Recognition Review Community Advisory Committee (CAC). The 20-member CAC was formed in fall 2021 and was made up of Black and Indigenous leaders, along with other diverse residents and business owners living and working along Dundas Street. The Committee was tasked with: 

  • Developing a shortlist of potential new names for Dundas Street and Yonge-Dundas Square 
  • Helping to shape a transition plan to support residents and businesses impacted by the name change 
  • Providing advice on guiding principles and processes for naming and renaming streets and properties in the future 

Following two years of consultation, research and discussion, the CAC reached consensus on the name “Sankofa Square” for Yonge-Dundas Square. In December 2023, City Council approved “Sankofa Square” as the new name for Yonge-Dundas Square and initiated plans to rename three other City assets that included the name Dundas (Dundas and Dundas West subway stations and the Jane/Dundas Public Library). The City will consider next steps to rename these assets in 2024. At the same time, Council adopted the recommendation to undertake a public education campaign, which will launch in 2024 and extend into 2025, that will focus on acknowledging the impact of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery. 

Council also directed the City Manager to pause work on the remaining recommendations from the July 2021 decision, including the renaming of Dundas Street, until Council provides direction to resume. 

The concept of Sankofa, originating in West Africa, refers to the act of reflecting on and reclaiming teachings from the past, which enables people to move forward together.  

Sankofa is most often reproduced as an image of a bird, with its body and feet facing forward, looking backwards to collect an egg from its own back, or holding an egg in its mouth. It is a symbol of survival, reclamation and remembrance, created by unknown artists, talented people who were living through a human disaster of unprecedented scale. 

Sankofa was selected as the result of two years of careful work by the Recognition Review Community Advisory Committee, whose conversations were informed by consultations with the public.

The 20-member Recognition CAC was formed in fall 2021 and was made up of Black and Indigenous leaders, along with other diverse residents and business owners living and working along Dundas Street. This name was suggested by representatives of the Black community who served on the committee, and of the many names considered, Sankofa emerged as the consensus choice. 

In the 18th century, the Akan-speaking region of West Africa, corresponding to modern day Ghana, as well as parts of Togo and Côte D’Ivoire, faced severe consequences from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The British Royal African Company, a slave trading company established in 1660, targeted the people of ‘The Guinea Coast’ for enslavement and transportation to the Americas. For the overwhelming majority of Akan-speaking peoples, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a demographic catastrophe that resulted in political destabilization, economic upheaval, warfare, population loss and widespread displacement.  

Amid this crisis, artists and craftspeople from this region created a new form of printed art, called Adinkra symbols, that were meant to be reproduced on items of everyday use such as fabrics and pottery. These symbols represented powerful aphorisms, including the principle of Sankofa, which means ‘look back to move forward’. Many of these principles and symbols, including Sankofa, have survived as artistic symbols and key philosophical concepts in the memory of both the peoples of Akan-speaking West Africa and the descendants of the victims of human trafficking who came from this region of the African continent. 

This powerful concept encapsulates the need for all members of our community to come together to reflect and learn from the loss and tragedy of the histories of Black enslavement. It also celebrates histories of survival and community and expresses the joy which we hope future generations of people will experience when they gather together in this central landmark of Canada’s largest city. 

City staff examined 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 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 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. 

Henry Dundas Legacy

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.

  • Reviewing names: 129 municipalities changed a street/public asset name (Montreal, Halifax); 37 did not (Kitchener); 2 added interpretive plaques
  • Anti-racism statements: 13 municipalities issued anti-racism statements (Mississauga)
  • Additional forms of commemoration: 15 are looking into a variety of ways to honour Indigenous and equity-deserving communities (Halifax)
  • Advisory committees: 47 established advisory committees, and 135 included public consultation (Halifax, Winnipeg)
  • Review of monuments: 178 removed monuments (Victoria, Regina, Halifax); 26 kept monuments but added or plan to add new interpretative plaques or make other modifications; 17 kept monuments and made no further changes

The City’s Recognition Review project examines how public spaces honour history. As part of the Recognition Review, City Council adopted a new framework to guide how the City commemorates public figures and events in street names, place names, and monuments. 

A request to review an existing commemorative street name, property name and monument can be made if it:  

  • Refers to current or historic persons known for their discriminatory views and actions, including committing or perpetuating acts of racism or violence against Indigenous Peoples and Black communities, and/or equity-deserving groups; 
  • Includes derogatory terms that might represent or be linked with discriminatory views and actions; 
  • Negatively represents or appropriates the culture of Indigenous Peoples, Black communities, and/or equity-deserving groups; 
  • Is inconsistent with City By-laws or policies including the City of Toronto Human Rights and Anti-Harassment / Discrimination Policy; 
  • Brings the City of Toronto into disrepute. 

If one, or more, of these criteria are met, an applicant can complete the Request to Review Form and submit it with the required supporting materials. The application must be fully complete with all supporting documentation attached to be considered. Incomplete Requests to Review will result in delays.