Renaming Dundas Street: Calling on Mayor Chow to get it right

By Lynn McDonald, Op-ed –

Olivia Chow made a strong start and received favourable cover­age for her first moves on being sworn in as Toronto’s mayor. However, on renaming Dundas Street she seems to have joined the old gang at City Hall. She correctly, but lamely, noted that the previous City Council had voted for the renaming. Former Mayor Tory himself realizes that it was a mistake; there are new councillors; and some old councillors that have changed their minds or are open to doing so.

Henry Dundas was a committed and effective aboli­tionist, achieving the abolition of slavery in Scotland in 1778. As a lawyer he took a case (pro bono) of a runaway slave, Joseph Knight, on appeal to the Law Lords of Scotland. “Human nature, my Lords, spurns at the thought of slavery among any part of our species,” he ar­gued. By a majority of eight to four they agreed: since Knight’s enslave­ment in Jamaica was “unjust,” it could not be supported in Scot­land.

The high court not only freed him but ended all slavery in Scotland.

Opponents of the street re­naming focus on Dundas’s 1792 movement of an amendment to a motion of William Wilberforce in Britain’s House of Com­mons. Wilberforce’s 1791 mo­tion to immediately abolish the slave trade had failed 163-88. Dundas’s amendment to make abolition gradual at least got it passed, the first anti-slavery statement in the British Parlia­ment. Chow, a former member of Canada’s Parliament, should know that a motion is only an expression of opinion, not a law. Wilberforce’s immediate motion had not a chance in the House of Lords, which did not even adopt the gradual motion, let alone an enforceable law. Not until 1807 did both Houses of Parliament adopt such a law. Even then, the trade in human beings continued; France, Spain and Portugal carried on as be­fore, while British slave ships put up false flags and carried false ownership papers.

Anti-Dundas people claim that 500,000 enslaved persons were taken to the West Indies thanks to the failure of im­mediate abolition in 1792, as if abolition could have been en­forced then. When Britain’s Royal Navy and Royal Marines began to enforce ab­olition, they stopped only an estimated six percent of the slave ships. They succeeded in res­cuing some 80,000 slaves in transit, at a cost of some 1600 seamen’s lives.

Yet, an estimated million Af­ricans were sent across the At­lantic into slavery, carried by the ships of other countries that Britain could not stop.

Dundas understood that it would take concerted action, with payments to slave owners and treaties with other coun­tries, to end slavery and the slave trade. Even Wilberforce later agreed that gradual emancipa­tion was the only way. In 1823, he helped organize and became vice-president of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Ab­olition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions.

Dundas made a last, signifi­cant, contribution to the aboli­tion cause by his endorsing the appointment of John Graves Simcoe, an abolitionist, as the first lieutenant-governor of Up­per Canada (Ontario). On ar­rival in 1792, Simcoe promptly sought to get an abolition bill into the House of Assembly. Attorney-General John White obliged, but the bill was stren­uously opposed, notably by slave-owning members. White’s revised bill, the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Cana­da, freed no existing slaves but banned future imports of them. Children of slaves born after the Act was passed would become free at age 25.

This modest act began to free enslaved persons in 1818, while the British equivalent did not take effect until 1834. White lost his legislative seat at the next election, probably for his oppo­sition to slavery.

Mayor Chow and Council should at least hold the pub­lic consultation on the Dundas Street renaming that was prom­ised. They should ascertain not only a realistic estimate of the costs but the inconvenience to business owners and individu­als with Dundas Street address­es. Addresses must be changed promptly on drivers’ licences and vehicle permits. Businesses will have to change signs, web­sites and some even their com­pany names.

For many Torontonians, the great offence of the name change is its cost while matters such as homelessness and encampments are urgent. Honour and integri­ty are also considerations. We should celebrate those who take on difficult justice causes, and we should never act on false facts.

Lynn McDonald, CM, PhD, former MP and fellow, Royal Historical Society