The conundrum at the heart of renaming Dundas Street

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Judging actions from almost three centuries ago through today’s lens opens the door to major misrepresentations and mistakes.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 21, 2023.

OTTAWA—Three white men have weighed in on the renaming of Toronto’s Dundas Street.

Last week, former mayors John Sewell, David Crombie, and Art Eggleton jointly signed a letter asking Toronto City Council to revisit a decision to rename Dundas Street, the nomenclature of which derived from a British parliamentarian who delayed the abolition of slavery.

Chances are their intervention will be met with a wall of opposition. There is certainly plenty of evidence to show that Henry Dundas’ policy of “gradualism” meant the path to abolition was slower than outright prohibition.

The conundrum is that Dundas was an avowed abolitionist who devoted his legal and political life to ending the practice. According to the mayoral triumvirate, Dundas “understood that it would take a lot more than simply passing a British law to get rid of the slave trade and slavery.”

Not surprisingly, modern day critics see Dundas’ gradualism as another way of simply permitting an abhorrent practice, enslaving humans like animals. While Dundas was gradually moving the political classes toward abolition, the practice allegedly increased under his watch, as slave traders wanted to make money while slavery was still legal.

Three retired mayors weighing in on any debate will be attacked. In conjoining on the issue, they are subjecting themselves to a potential political backlash that could have been avoided by simply staying silent.

Speaking out took a certain amount of courage. The fact that they did it collectively offers a bit of political cover, but not much. Together, they have more than 50 years’ experience in politics, but nowadays, that is more of a lead weight than a buoy.

Politicians are treated with disdain as most members of the public think they are self-interested and too slow to make things happen. The public could be right on both counts. Self-interest involves getting re-elected, and that means sometimes slowing down change to secure the political support of those on the fringes.

It also means than change always happens more slowly than advocates would like.

The average international agreement, whether it be at UNESCO, the WTO or the WHO, usually takes at least a decade to develop before an internal consensus can make it into a legal document. When UNESCO passed the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions it was the culmination of seven years of work that began in Canada.

At the time, it was the quickest legal instrument ever adopted by the world body responsible for science, education, and culture.

Any politician would know that wiping out the slave trade would not happen overnight. Why punish the memory of one of those who was actually fighting to abolish it?

The financial cost of changing the name motivates some to oppose the change. I have a daughter living on Dundas Street in Toronto, and a sister living in the town of Dundas, so they have a personal stake in the name.

But the decision should not just be based on money. The outgoing council of the City of Toronto supported the move, which was estimated to cost $8.6-million. That number doesn’t include the cost to all those residents and businesses who would have to change their postal addresses, signage and other street identifiers.

The real issue is that judging actions from almost three centuries ago through today’s lens opens the door to major misrepresentations and mistakes. It is also tough for white men to politically weigh in on issues like human enslavement.

It would have been a lot easier for the three authors of the mayoral missive to simply sit on the sidelines and watch the story unfold without having their say. All three hailed from three different parties, so there seems to be a broad spectrum of consensus on the issue.

The former mayors also noted that Dundas, actually, was key in making Upper Canada the first jurisdiction in the then-British Empire to abolish slavery. Dundas appointed a noted abolitionist, John Graves Simcoe, as the province’s lieutenant-governor. He was joined by an abolitionist attorney general, John White, who introduced the legislation to abolish slavery in 1793.

White was defeated in the next election.

By all historical accounts, Dundas was a committed abolitionist, who introduced the notion of gradualism so that an achievable path to abolition could be cleared. Instead of being pilloried as a slave-lover, he should be recognized as a committed abolitionist who use compromise to continue the pursuit of his personal goal, an end to slavery.

That’s no reason to abolish his memory.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.