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Home Opinion Opinion: Dundas Street renaming turning into an embarrassment

Opinion: Dundas Street renaming turning into an embarrassment

Toronto City Council needs to save itself from embarrassment and scrap the whole idea of renaming Dundas Street. The decision was based on discredited research and biased handling of the issue from the beginning by city staff with an activist agenda. Specific Council direction on public consultation was ignored and key parts of the projects were assigned to an underqualified consultant who openly admitted her bias on social media.

Decision to rename Dundas Street made in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder

The idea for renaming arose in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. The slaying triggered a wave of demonstrations across North America and in Europe, and in Ontario it was no different. Amidst the many anti-racism protests that were taking place in Ontario cities during that period of unrest, Toronto City Council received a petition calling for the re-naming of Dundas Street on the grounds that Henry Dundas, a prominent Scottish politician was accused of prolonging the slave trade in the British Empire. This despite the fact that Dundas was on record as opposing the slave trade, never owned slaves, and as a lawyer had actually secured the freedom of a slave.

The Historical debate

Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville

By way of background, in 1792 a bill was before parliament to abolish the slave trade by Britain. It was one of many bills to end slave trade that were quickly shot down by parliament or the House of Lords.  Henry Dundas felt that this latest bill would be similarly futile and would never get past the House of Lords which was dominated by slave interests. “My opinion has been always against the Slave Trade,” he said. He argued, however, that a vote for immediate abolition would be ineffective, as it would drive the slave trade underground. His amendment called for the “gradual” elimination of the slave trade, feeling it was better to get a bill passed with some anti-slavery language in it than to get nothing. Even with the watered-down language the bill was ultimately defeated. The slave trade was not abolished for another 15 years, and for his part, Dundas’s detractors blame him for 500,000 additional slaves being sold during those years.

Events in Scotland spread to Toronto

Statue of Dundas in Ediburgh

Also in the aftermath of the Floyd slaying was a movement in Edinburgh Scotland to place a plaque on a statue of Dundas blaming him for prolonging the slave trade. Leading the academics who provided research into the plaque was Stephen Mullen, whose opinion was largely relied upon by Edinburgh Council in the plaquing decision . Almost immediately Mullin’s work was attacked by several academic experts. The journal Scottish Affairs published an exposé that identified critical errors in Dr. Mullen’s research, and even called the integrity of his published work into question.  Professor Angela McCarthy said Dr. Mullen had twisted the words of other scholars to support his thesis, and failed to address the enormous obstacles to abolition. She stated: “historians have the right to interpret facts differently but not to knowingly misrepresent them.” Dr Mullin also posted a tweet accusing Jennifer Dundas, an Alberta Crown Attorney and descendent of Henry Dundas, of “leading a sinister misinformation campaign,” for her efforts to correct the record on the Dundas legacy. He later issued a statement in which read “ I now accept that this implication is without foundation. And I apologize unreservedly to Ms. Dundas.” A similar apology was demanded and received from City of Toronto staffer, Richard Gerrard who prepared the historical research for the staff working group on the Dundas Street renaming project, who had re-tweeted Mullin’s comments about Ms. Dundas.

The plaque placed at the foot of the statue of Dundas based on discredited research

Toronto staff relied on Mullin’s contested research

 When Toronto received the petition to rename Dundas street, signed by 14,000 individuals, Council decided to form a task force to assess four options ranging from “do nothing” to three options involving removal of the Dundas name from some or all city properties. Heading the task force was the City’s Director of Museums and Heritage Services, Cheryl Blackman, who saw her work in part as a vehicle to oppose racism, as she at one time explained in an  interview about an exhibit she was organizing, saying she “aimed to  raise consciousness around things like Truth and Reconciliation, the experiences of BIPOC people through five centuries, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-oppression.” She also relied heavily on Dr. Mullin’s research, communicating with him several times during the process. Council mandated the task force to conduct a broad public consultation that would include town hall events, meetings with stakeholders, a public opinion poll and online survey and dedicated email and phone for commenting.

Public consultation did not follow council direction

For all the dozens of consultants who work in the field of either Equity, Diversity and Inclusion  or public consultation in Toronto and the GTA, the task force sole-sourced a contract to advise on the community consultation, to a small Ottawa consultancy, called QuakeLab. The agency’s principal, Sharon Nyangweso once said in a Women of Influence profile, “We are not accountable to our clients, but to the BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ2S+, women, men and youth who we work in service of! Those folks, they’re my bosses!”

In setting terms of reference for the contract Blackman provided a memo to the consultant that declared Dundas’ role in prolonging the slave trade as established fact, despite the very active academic debate to the contrary.

QuakeLab, as an EDI workshop provider, had no demonstrated qualifications in conducting public consultations. It didn’t matter as it turned out, because Nyangweso had no intention of consulting broadly as council had stipulated. Instead she recommended that ‘engagement’ replace ‘consultations.’ In other words, recommending that the City first make the decision to rename Dundas Street, and then ‘engage’ with the public.  Her reasoning might be explained by a tweet she posted later reacting to a poll that found the majority of Canadians were opposed to cancelling Canada Day, in which she wrote: “This is why I believe certain things don’t need to be polls or surveys. You’re placing an unaffected majorities’ feelings over a marginalized Minorities well being.”

Toronto Council’s direction in the Dundas Street naming issue was clear. They called for a 7-item public consultation program that consisted of a speakers panel, town hall events. stakeholder meetings, First Nations consultation, a project web page with an online survey, and a dedicated email and phone line for public comments. It also called for the public opinion poll. Instead, staff only went ahead with meetings with stakeholders and the phone and email line. Instead of the broad community consultation that had been directed, QuakeLab held a total of four “discovery” sessions between December 2020 and February 2021 involving a total of approximately 25 members of the Black and Indigenous business communities. That was it.

Toronto City Council received the report recommending the re-naming of the street on June 28, 2021, just ahead of the July long weekend and what are typically the busiest meetings of the year for Council. The name change was approved without council having a clear understanding of the degree to which the public consultation they had approved had been altered.

Next steps

Councillor Matlow is to be commended for recently expressing willingness to revisit the issue and for acknowledging that the original decision was made in haste and without proper public consultation. He voted for the name change originally and the easy way out would be the stick with the original decision. Hopefully a majority of his colleagues will reconsider as well as ex-Mayor John Tory who recently suggested in a television interview that “we need to make sure we don’t miss part of the history and have to go down this road again,” when asked about the Dundas renaming. Toronto Council is supposed to take up this issue sometime this year, hopefully John Tory’s unexpected departure won’t get in the way of this matter getting a fresh look.


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