This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca
Last week, following widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations across Canada and the rest of the world, a push began to rename Toronto’s Dundas Street. Building upon a similar movement in Edinburgh, it was not long before the call to remove the Dundas name spread to other places, such as, in Ontario, London’s main commercial street and Hamilton’s west-end suburb. Dundas’s namesake has been deeply emblazoned across the province.
The impetus for this removal stems from the person these designations sought to honour: Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.
Dundas was a Scottish aristocrat and key British cabinet member under William Pitt the Younger. In 1792, Dundas (who had tight links to the West Indies) led the charge to modify a parliamentary motion to immediately abolish the slave trade. Here, it was the addition of one word – and Dundas’s subsequent actions – that tarnished his name. Much to well-known abolitionist William Wilberforce’s chagrin, Dundas amended a motion to abolish slavery by adding the word “gradually.” Dundas was then pressured to put forth another motion calling for an end to the trade by 1800. When the original motion was amended to end the trade four years earlier, in 1796, Dundas walked away from the bill. For the rest of his career, Henry Dundas opposed abolitionist efforts (you can read more about him here and here). Those calling for Dundas’s removal blame him for delaying abolition by as much as 15 years; others (specifically his family) argue that he was in fact an abolitionist and his role during these years governed by political pragmatism.
I am not an expert in the career of Henry Dundas, but as a historian who grew up in Dundas, Ontario and now frequents Dundas Street in downtown London, I do know a bit about the places that people want renamed.
When I grew up, I was told that the Dundas Streets in both Toronto and London took on these monikers because they led to Dundas the town. No one really talked about who the town was named after. What we did talk about, though, was the Governor’s Road.
The Governor’s Road was the first road to be built in what would become Ontario. Elsewhere, it was (and is) called Dundas Street.
Understanding the Dundas Street/Governor’s Road connection is important because it teaches us much about Ontario’s early history and how calls to rename Dundas might serve as an opportunity to better acknowledge that past.Continue reading “So long Dundas: From Colonization to Decolonization Road?”