Toronto Mayor John Tory may have sensed he was stepping into dangerous waters when he announced that he was in support of a staff report that recommended the re-naming of Dundas Street. The re-naming issue arose in response to a 14,000-signature petition, in the heat of the George Floyd aftermath, that accused Henry Dundas, for whom the street and town were named, of being responsible for the perpetuation of slavery. Tory had a committee struck to research the issue and it while it may have been assumed that the committee would sift through the evidence in a dispassionate manner, that is apparently not what happened. What came back was a recommendation that critics say, ignored strong scholarly evidence that declared Dundas to be a staunch opponent of slavery. A man who as a lawyer had successfully argued a case that led to the freedom of a slave and the subsequent abolition of slavery in Scotland.
The Dundas legacy centres around a bill that was introduced in the British Parliament in 1792 to abolish slavery. The same bill had been soundly defeated a year earlier and there was no reason to believe it would pass this time. As the bill was being debated, Dundas tabled a petition from Edinburgh residents who supported abolition. He then went on to affirm his agreement in principle with the motion: “My opinion has been always against the Slave Trade.” He argued, however, that a vote for immediate abolition would be ineffective, as it would drive the slave trade underground. He anticipated, in particular, that merchants from other countries would step in to fill the gap left by the British. So he inserted the word “gradual” into the motion and it passed. He later argued that it was better to have a law on the books that opposed slavery, even with the weakened language that to have the bill suffer another defeat, and delay abolition even further.
Trying to shoehorn Henry Dundas into the ranks of the slave trade when, without question he was an abolitionist, is an intellectual absurdity. The entire episode is further evidence, if we need any, that the most mindless act of civic engagement is the on-line petition. His own descendants acknowledge their ancestor “certainly wasn’t a saint and was a very controversial figure. But currently there is only one side of the man being shown.”
Last year Edinburgh City Council commissioned a panel that eventually had a plaque appended to the base of a statue to Henry Dundas reading, “In 2020, this was dedicated to the memory of more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.” The historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine dismisses the wording on the plaque and condemns the panel as a “kangaroo court.”
Some of the same Canadians who shake their heads condescendingly at the divorce from reality of the roughly 40 percent of Americans who believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election; apparently think it is ok to posthumously punish Dundas for something there is very strong evidence, he did not do. Professor Devine thinks Edinburgh council will regret their foray into revisionist history and so too may Toronto’s. If not for the sake of intellectual honesty, at least for the sake of the thousands of businesses who will incur costs as a result of this exercise in woke-ism gone mad, this ill-considered decision should be reversed.