Descendants of Henry Dundas, for whom the Hamilton town and the Toronto Street were named have called out the research commissioned by the city of Toronto that led to the decision to expunge the Dundas name from the east-west artery in Toronto. They charged that the research team paid no attention to scholarly documentation that showed Dundas to be an anti-slavery moderate, and relied entirely on evidence that portrayed Dundas in a negative light. Bobby Dundas, the inheritor of Henry Dundas’ Viscount Melville title and Jennifer Dundas, an Alberta Crown Prosecutor and former CBC journalist, say they were invited to participate in the development of the report and they spent countless hours preparing research. However, they write, “we now realize the degree to which we were co-opted and misled. Staff acted as if we had a voice, while completely disregarding our input into the fact-finding process.” Long-time Dundas Councillor Russ powers told the Bay Observer that he was “involved in discussions in the agreed-upon approach to consultations, (but)…no promises were followed through on… (Melville and Dundas’s) research has been peer reviewed whereas the Toronto approach is less than balanced…decide the end result then populate with selective information.”
Last year a plaque was placed at the base of a statue to Dundas in Edinburgh that repeated the notion that Dundas contributed to the perpetuation of slavery. In objecting, the current Viscount, a professional polo player, entrepreneur and friend of Prince Harry who once rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic in a tiny boat, says those who claim the 1st Viscount supported slavery do him a ‘profound injustice’. ‘I think it’s absolutely horrific what happened to George Floyd. I think racism is systematic and it’s institutional within politics and culture, our social environment in the 21st century. ‘I think it’s great what’s going on (BLM) and it’s great that it’s being shown. What’s not great is the thuggery and extremism that takes to spray cans and vandalism.’
What follows is the letter written by the Dundas descendants to Toronto Council.
Open letter to Toronto City Councillors from the Henry Dundas Committee for Public Education on Historic Scotland:
Dear councillors and Your Worship,
We write to express our profound disappointment in the findings and recommendations of Toronto city staff, who have asked you to embark on a process of removing the name “Dundas” from Toronto’s public spaces.
We have identified serious errors and omissions your staff’s description of the relevant facts. It is apparent that they have provided you with a distorted view of history that overlooks or unreasonably rejects critically important evidence.
Our committee was invited last year to participate in the process that was created to generate the report and recommendations released today. We were offered the opportunity to engage in regular consultations with city staff, and devoted countless hours to preparing research and discussing it with them. We now realize the degree to which we were co-opted and misled. Staff acted as if we had a voice, while completely disregarding our input into the fact-finding process.
However, our biggest disappointment concerns the findings and recommendations of staff.
The documents made public yesterday make one thing starkly apparent: City of Toronto staff have neglected their duty to develop a truthful account of history. They have deprived you of the opportunity to move forward on the basis of a reliable account of the legacy of Henry Dundas.
We wish to draw your attention to the following:
• The facts staff cite most prominently are taken from a petition signed by 14,000 people from around the world in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The facts they cite distort the historical record. They imply that without Henry Dundas’s motion for gradual abolition in 1792, the slave trade would have been abolished immediately, and the enslavement of more than 500,000 million Africans over the next 15 years would have been avoided. While activists frequently make this claim, it is founded on serious errors in logic. Even the most committed anti-Dundas scholars admit that abolition had no chance of success in 1792.
• Staff baldly state that Henry Dundas voted against numerous proposals for abolition. This is false. Parliamentary records show that no evidence at all that Henry Dundas voted against abolition. Ever.
• Staff noted that Henry Dundas was “one of the lawyers” who represented Joseph Knight, a Jamaican slave who was brought to Scotland, and went on to fight for his freedom in Scotland’s courts. Their description of this landmark case unfairly diminishes Dundas’s role. Dundas was not just “one of the lawyers” assisting Mr. Knight. He led the entire legal team, and persuaded Scotland’s highest court to declare that no man could be a slave on Scottish soil. When the court rendered its decision, it was Henry Dundas’s submissions that they cited.
• Staff overwhelmingly relied on scholarly publications that supported their conclusions. They state that they relied on the findings in academic peer-reviewed publications in which the authors conclude that Henry Dundas was instrumental in delaying the abolition of the slave trade. They offer no meaningful analysis of the writings of scholars who offer a contrary view – including Professor Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most eminent and celebrated historian. Only one sentence in their background document even acknowledges such opposing views.
• They failed to grapple with the single most important argument that is contrary to their position, conceded even by prominent abolitionists of the day, which is that immediate abolition was not achievable in the 1790’s, given the powerful opposing forces, and the fact that Britain was fighting for its very survival in a war with France.
• They ignored evidence that 25 years after the crucial debates in Parliament, abolitionists regretted not following the advice that Dundas had given them privately. The historical record shows that by the 1820’s, leading abolitionists including William Wilberforce realized that Dundas had been right all along – that in the late 18th century, powerful opposing forces would have to be appeased before the government could abolish the slave trade. They also wished that they had taken Dundas’s advice to seek the abolition of slavery and the slave trade together, rather than focusing solely on the slave trade.
Dundas’s influence on Canada is another important area that your staff overlooked:
• Dundas commissioned John Graves Simcoe, an avowed abolitionist, to be the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada. He subsequently oversaw Simcoe’s most famous achievement – the passage of the first anti-slavery bill anywhere in the British Empire.
• Henry Dundas showed support for indigenous peoples in Canada, whom he respectfully referred to in correspondence as “nations.” When Simcoe was fortifying Upper Canada to resist American marauders, Dundas ordered him to ensure that sufficient land was set aside for indigenous nations so that they could sustain themselves comfortably. At that time, the local indigenous peoples had only a few geographically isolated and limited treaty rights.
• Dundas sharply rebuked the governors of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick after learning that they had refused to respect the rights of Black Loyalists – the Black soldiers who had fought alongside the British during the American Revolution. He ordered them to give these Loyalists the land and benefits to which they were entitled, and to provide compensation for the delay. To the Black Loyalists who were unhappy with this result, he offered free passage to Sierra Leone.
• Dundas instructed the governor responsible for Lower Canada to ensure that the newly-formed legislative assembly conducted debates and passed legislation in both English and French. English speaking members of the assembly were then insisting that English be the only official language of the assembly. Dundas put a stop to these oppressive tactics, becoming the first senior politician to endorse official bilingualism anywhere in Canada.
We can hardly begin to express our disappointment that none of this evidence, which is easily verified, was given any weight at all. We provided staff with extensive materials that included citations and links to authoritative sources, and are frankly astonished to discover that they apparently had no intention of taking these submissions seriously. (These materials are summarized here: and here: HD Historic Scotland Committee – Medium)
The one-sided account of history that staff presented to you ought to be unacceptable even to those who wish to change the name of Dundas Street. Staff had a duty to get the facts right. They failed to discharge this duty.
The Henry Dundas Committee supports the movement to recognize both the oppression and the triumphs of racialized peoples, and to ensure that their experience is recognized in our public spaces. We also believe in the need for truth and reconciliation, which of course must be founded, first and foremost, on the truth.
We believe your staff have let you down by unduly focusing on reconciliation, and failing to give due regard to the importance of the truth.
We therefore ask that you reject the findings and the recommendations of city staff.