BRAUN: What’s in a name? Negative associations, if it’s Henry Dundas

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Calls for Henry Dundas’ ouster are getting louder.

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A City of Toronto staff report recommends the renaming of Dundas St. and “other civic assets” bearing the Dundas name, a move supported by Mayor John Tory.

That report will be presented Tuesday to the city’s influential executive committee, before going later this month to city council which has the final say on the issue.

The cost of changing the name Dundas — on transit stops and stations, schools, public buildings, street signs, Dundas Square, etc. — is estimated at between $5 million and $6.3 million.

Whatever Toronto decides about the Dundas name, the whole world is watching.

Henry Dundas — aka Lord Melville — was a powerful 18th-century Scottish politician who helped delay the end of the transatlantic slave trade by 15 years, during which time well over 500,000 people were enslaved in British territories.

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In his role as British home secretary, he also played a part in the ongoing subjugation of Canada’s Indigenous population. He made a grab for France’s Caribbean slaving empire, sacrificing thousands of British troops in the effort, and was implicated in the genocide of the Garifuna on the island of St. Vincent.

A street sign for Dundas St. W. in Toronto, Ont. on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Henry Dundas opposed the abolition efforts of people like William Wilberforce in the British Parliament. Should the street be renamed?
A street sign for Dundas St. W. in Toronto, Ont. on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Henry Dundas opposed the abolition efforts of people like William Wilberforce in the British Parliament. Should the street be renamed? Photo by ERNEST DOROSZUK /TORONTO SUN

As City Manager Chris Murray wrote in his report, to continue commemorating Henry Dundas, “is in direct conflict with the values of equity and inclusion that the City of Toronto upholds.”

Toronto is not alone in the Dundas debacle. Edinburgh and other places in Scotland are likewise trying to figure out what to do with all the buildings and places named after Dundas, although the conversation there — Dundas being a Scot and all — is a little more heated.

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The massive statue in Dundas’ honour in Edinburgh’s St. Andrew’s Square has been a source of much discontent. A plaque is being added to educate people about Dundas’ actions.

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Professor-emeritus Sir Geoff Palmer, human rights activist and chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, leads the Edinburgh Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group that is sussing out controversial statues and street names in Edinburgh with links to slavery.

Toronto got a shout-out from Palmer this week for the strong stance taken by Mayor John Tory and city council.

(Interestingly, Palmer doesn’t believe in removing statues or necessarily changing names, but he does believe in educating people, which can mean adding a plaque with more information or adding a counter-monument.)

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“It was excellent news when we read the evidence-based position taken by the Mayor of Toronto,” stated Palmer.

“Slaver Dundas was a racist ‘elite’ who accepted the racist inventions of Hume and Kant that different people are different races, some inferior, some superior. There is no evidence for these sad inventions. We are one humanity, different but the same.”

Palmer added that the work done in Toronto validates the revised plaque that will be placed on Dundas’ Edinburgh memorial. 

“Dundas’ actions benefited slave owners. Toronto’s report says that such actions were inhuman and unacceptable. I agree.”

Some historians still argue that Dundas was an abolitionist, and that his “gradual” approach to ending the slave trade got the bill passed and prevented a collapse of the economy.

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The 630,000 people enslaved over the 15 years of ‘gradual’ abolition might not see it that way.

To paint Dundas as an abolitionist in any way, said Palmer, “is what I call the false national pride of some historians who believe wrongly that the public prefers excuses rather than face the truth. This is an insult.

“The public knows we cannot change the past, but we can change consequences such as racism for the better, using education. The truth works.”

Closer to home, University of Toronto history professor Melanie J. Newton reflects the same views in her essay Henry Dundas, empire and genocide, in opendemocracy.net

“The weight of the evidence — that Dundas was dedicated to a vision of empire built on the mass enslavement of black people and the mass slaughter of Indigenous Americans — is overwhelming,” she wrote.

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