L’Affaire Dundas in Toronto: Falling for a Hoax

1619 Project Canada Colonial Era Corrective History Egerton Ryerson History Debates History Wars Patrice Dutil Slavery Statue-Toppling Woke Hypocrisy

“The assault on Dundas Street was another groundhog day in what has become a ritualized politics of ignorance and deception.”

 

By Patrice Dutil

 

SPECIAL TO THE DORCHESTER REVIEW. A shorter version appears in the National Post.

 

“An objective reading of the history, the significance of this street which crosses our city, the fact Mr. Dundas had virtually no connection to Toronto and most importantly, our strong commitment to equity, inclusion and reconciliation make this a unique and symbolically important change.” 

— John Tory, Mayor of Toronto, June 2021.[1]

 

Henry Dundas: Actually an Anti-Slavery Hero.

 

 

 

IN A FIT OF SUDDEN historical awareness, the City of Toronto decided in 2021 to adopt a plan to erase “Dundas,” one of the oldest names on its streetscape. The city is home to 2.8 million people and has a budget of nearly $15 billion but its leaders have never felt the need for a toponymy committee or for a general strategy on how to decide what-gets-named-and-how. Instead, decisions on street names are made on a whim, typically to win a quick favour for a councillor. The latest display of this habit was a motion to name a stadium in honour of the late mayor Rob Ford, a man best known for embarrassing Torontonians on the world stage with his debauchery, deceit, and incompetence. A study of whom the city has honoured with place-names in the past would reveal a long inventory of utterly forgettable people. Meanwhile, most of the significant figures in Canada’s past get no marker in the city’s public memory. There is little to mark the battles in which Toronto’s soldiers distinguished themselves. There is not even passing acknowledgement of the writers, composers, artists, or athletes who have had a hand in shaping the culture of the place. Toronto forgets diligently, a city that often lives up to its reputation as a city that has no soul.

It goes beyond that, of course. Generations of city fathers have also laid waste to the community’s built heritage. In yet another spasm of “modern” thinking in the 1950s and 1960s, city council permitted the demolition of some of Toronto’s finest vintage skyscrapers and rid the town of a beautiful stock of art deco buildings. They were replaced with parking lots and eventually with ugly glass boxes.

The assault on Dundas was another Groundhog Day in what has become a ritualized politics of deception. Whether it is Sir Hector Langevin, Sir John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, or even Queen Victoria, politicians have allowed the extreme views of small cliques to dictate what should be publicly remembered. No public debates are ever held or sponsored, no legislative committees are struck to hear from expert witnesses. Instead, decisions are handed to carefully selected like-minded objectors whose mission is to cut the link between Canadians and their past. The Dundas affair is different in terms of the enormous expenditures it has triggered already and will continue to in the future. What makes this example all the more stark is how city staff have willingly conspired to distort the life and times of Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville.

The story started in Edinburgh in 2017 when a group led by a natural scientist proposed that a new plaque be installed at the foot of the monument that honoured Dundas’s memory in that city. The “argument” was that Dundas’s unique role in delaying the abolition of the slave trade by the British Empire had to be publicly acknowledged. The proposal won the support of the city council and a plaque was created and installed in Jul. 2020. There was no serious consideration given in Scotland’s capital to removing the 135-foot monument or the 14-foot statue of Dundas that stands atop it, or to rename it.

 

Subscribe and get $10 off at checkout with the discount code FERRIS

 

Inspired by this example, activists in Toronto took advantage of the media frenzy and emotional turmoil of the spring of 2020 in the United States. Looking for a piece of the action, they demanded that Toronto be rid of its “colonial” past and make a show of respect for its black and indigenous communities. An online petition to rename Dundas Street in Toronto suddenly materialized. It was never audited. The argument was borrowed from the Scots: Dundas had played a “role in delaying the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Mayor John Tory, previously known for his caution and careful consideration, immediately ordered city staff to come up with a rationale to accommodate the request.

A year later, the city’s top bureaucrat recommended that Dundas Street be renamed. His recommendation was based on a staff-written 24-page report submitted in Jun. 2021. It was accompanied by a “reading list” that was by any standard laughably incomplete and biased. It also offered supportive comments that confirmed the report’s bias and was altogether silent on authoritative sources that showed Dundas in a truer light. John Ralston Saul, the self-appointed public intellectual and “head boy” favourite of a select group of chic Toronto wokeisti, supported the report in a Toronto Star op-ed that denounced Dundas as a “major slave baron” and compared him to  Goebbels and Himmler. I will not be the first to question Saul’s understanding of history.

The cost of renaming Dundas Street was estimated at over $6 million but of course it would actually cost much more, to say nothing of the inconvenience.

 

 

“Now that John Tory has announced that he will run for reelection, he really should put a stop to the Dundas hoax”

 

The Toronto report had the virtue of being candid. It acknowledged that it was done “in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and the global protests that followed.” It declared that the very name of the street was “an act of oppression to continue to honour and recognize individuals who have contributed to the subjugation of Black and Indigenous peoples, and people of colour.” Outrageous already, the connection got even more bizarre.

Dundas was accused of trying to capture the revolutionary colony of St. Domingue (Haiti) from the French. The report did not mention that Napoleon crushed the revolt and reinstated slavery. It then turned even stranger: Dundas was accused of having defeated the French forces in Egypt, “a victory that enabled England to enforce colonial control of India.” This was a new twist: the British were wrong to defeat Napoleon? The report cherry-picked one geo-strategic effect of that defeat and missed the forest for the trees. “Dundas played a key part in the expansion of Britain’s presence and influence in India,” it says. Clearly the authors of the report were unaware of Dundas’s opposition to Britons buying any land in India! It’s a wonder they didn’t hold Dundas responsible for the outbreak of the First World War or the Spanish Flu.

 

THE DUNDAS AFFAIR is not trivial. One of the oldest streets in the city, its 12 miles span Toronto’s east-west axis. At its midpoint, it intersects Yonge Street, named in honour of Sir George Yonge, the Secretary of War during the conflict against Revolutionary France, and forms Yonge-Dundas Square, one of the largest in the city. Dundas Street is home to over 97,000 residents and 4,500 businesses, including sixty that have “Dundas” in their name. By sheer longevity and the Scottish connection, the name of Dundas lends dignity and gravitas to a city that has buried much of its past.

For two hundred years, most Torontonians probably thought the name honoured some founding family like the Jarvises, Christies, or Bloors. The better-travelled might have made the link to the Dundas Clan of Scotland, many of whom had immigrated to Canada and to the city. A select few might have wished that it was named for Captain George Dundas, a young University of Toronto student who had joined the C.E.F. in 1915, survived gassing at Passchendaele in Sep. 1917 and was killed in Apr. 1918 at Amiens.

Very few knew that Dundas Street commemorated someone named “Henry Dundas” until George Floyd was suffocated in Minneapolis, a thousand miles west of Toronto.

It was Mayor John Tory, the former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, who gave the oddly fictionalized link political momentum. He could have ignored the issue; he could have acquired the facts. He could have said, “No, Dundas is one of Toronto’s oldest landmarks and there is not a good enough reason to change it.” Instead, he took up the activists’ cause, promoted it, sent the Council into a tizzy — and suddenly all of Toronto discovered that the rather ordinary name that had given itself to shawarma and auto repairs shops, pharmacies, dental offices and what-not had been borne by a murderous slave trader. The allegation was swallowed whole as if a mere petition constituted expertise. With the stroke of a pen, Toronto was equating the name of Dundas with slavery. It’s a wonder none of the hundreds of Toronto residents and businesses bearing the name did not sue the mayor and city for defamation.

 

HENRY DUNDAS (1742-1811) was a giant figure in the wars that marked the last third of the 18th century and the history of Canada after the American War of Independence. In traditional British and Canadian historiography (English and French) those wars constituted a struggle to maintain British freedom and order from revolutionary threats, oppression, and mythology. Since no graduate of our schools or universities is expected to have even a passing awareness of that context — and moreover since the back-story of the heritage of liberty embedded in the colonial-era names of our streets, towns, and counties has disappeared from public general knowledge, understanding, and oral history — it is little surprise that these played no role in the discussion.

Born in Edinburgh, Dundas studied law at the city’s university and found himself powerfully attracted to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was also immensely talented. He was named Solicitor General for Scotland almost straight out of university, but particularly distinguished himself in leading the defence of Joseph Knight, a young black man who had been enslaved in Jamaica and taken to Scotland. Knight tried to escape upon setting foot in Britain but was unsuccessful. Dundas fought for Knight’s freedom and won the landmark case. He was a man of the world.

He combined pride in his Scots heritage with a broad Enlightenment humanity. He had all the virtues and deficiencies of a progressive Whig and on occasion defended even the rights of Catholics (much to his personal peril: rioters attacked his house in Edinburgh while his mother was at home). He stood up for displaced Highlanders, as well as the enslaved. He took inspiration from Sir Guy Carleton’s Quebec Act of 1774 which showed that Great Britain could learn to live with Catholics, at least in the context of its large majority-French colony. In fact, Henry Dundas was the man who ordered the government of Lower Canada (today’s Quebec) to support the pleas of Canadien politicians and ensure that laws introduced in the Legislative Assembly be written in French and that all bills be presented in translation. He was thus responsible for the first policy of bilingualism in this country.

Dundas was also a politician who worked hard to dominate Scottish affairs. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1774 as a protégé of Lord North and later as a leading figure in the administration of William Pitt. He served as Secretary of State for the Home Office (1791-4), Secretary of War (1794-1801), and First Lord of the Admiralty (1804-5). His reconstruction of the Royal Navy led to Britain’s triumph in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and shattered Napoleon’s plans to invade England.

  

From Sublime to Ridiculous

ENTER THE CITY of Toronto. Its “report” declared that “20 academic experts knowledgeable in the areas of public history, Black Canadian studies and public commemoration as a whole” were consulted. In fact, no qualified historians of either 18th century Britain or Upper Canada, of whom there are a number in Ontario, were involved. The drafters consulted the city’s Anti-Black Racism Unit and the Indigenous Affairs Office and concluded (not surprisingly) that the question was ripe for public consideration.

The City then retained QuakeLab, an independent consultancy on “equity-deserving communities” to further bolster its position. Four “discovery” sessions with 25 “community leaders” were then held. The City claims that business organizations were supportive of renaming the street. It is not clear if they were told the actual cost or asked to suggest better ways to spend such monies, such as helping people who actually suffer from racial discrimination. Instead, according to the report, “the new context” (that is to say, the far-away, feverish, violent American summer of 2020) required quick action in Toronto, leaving no room for such subtleties.

The city also launched a “Recognition Review” to “examine and respond to how systemic racism and discrimination may be embedded in place names and City assets,” writing:

 

The City of Toronto communicates a core value through its motto, “Diversity Our Strength.” However, most commemorations in Toronto represent the stories of white settler males in positions of power. This historic imbalance has meant that other stories – including those of Indigenous Peoples, Black communities, racialized communities, women, 2SLGBTQ+ persons, and other equity deserving groups – are underrepresented in the public realm. Developing a new commemorative framework to address this imbalance will have a positive long-term impact for the City by building the foundation for a stronger, more inclusive Toronto through an intentional, equitable and community-centred approach to consultation, naming and commemoration (my emphasis).

 

Clearly remembering is a zero-sum game in Toronto. If some groups are not sufficiently represented, then the task is not to find ways to celebrate them. Instead it is better to eliminate any reminder that Toronto was a place where “white settler males” dominated society or even wielded influence from the mother country. 

In July 2021, a majority of City Council bought the staff report and voted 17 to 7 to rename the street, two subway stations, a public library, the square, and a number of parks.[2] It was yet another apotheosis of the dunce-cap when it comes to history and heritage.

 

Subscribe to support accurate history reporting, and get $10 off at checkout with the discount code FERRIS

 

John Tory’s next move was to ask the City Manager to “convene a Community Advisory Committee made up of Black and Indigenous leaders and representatives from the diverse communities, including Business Improvement Areas and Residents Associations, represented along Dundas Street, to develop and seek community input on potential new names for Dundas Street and other City-owned assets bearing the Dundas name and to report back to the Executive Committee with recommended names by the second quarter of 2022.” [sic!] Breathlessly, he went on: “This is a moment in time when it is important to make a statement to the entire community about including those who have been marginalized and recognizing the significant effect past history can have on present day lives.” In other words, the Dundas affair had nothing to do with Henry Dundas or Toronto’s heritage. It was an exercise in virtue signalling. For the mayor of a major city, the superficiality was stupendous.

 

“Renaming Dundas Street was yet another apotheosis of the dunce-cap when it comes to history and heritage.”

 

The seven-paragraph history presented in the City Staff report revealed the limits of the research. It claimed to be based on a review of “published peer-reviewed academic research prepared by professional historians on Henry Dundas to understand his legacy and how it may impact Black and Indigenous communities in Toronto.” But the only source selected to prove Dundas “subjugated” indigenous people was not peer-reviewed.

The potted history does not give any overview of Dundas’s life and times. Instead it focuses entirely on one position he took at one moment in time, based on select and biased readings, presented without context, and egregiously illogical. First, the text:

 

In 1792, independent Member of Parliament William Wilberforce brought a bill before the British House of Commons to immediately abolish the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. This proposal followed growing support for abolition among the British public, with a then-record 500 petitions being submitted to the House in support of Wilberforce's bill. During the parliamentary debate, Dundas proposed an amendment qualifying support for the bill by adding the word "gradually", so that it read that the slave trade "ought gradually to be abolished". In his speech to parliament, Dundas explained that while he had "long entertained the same opinion … as to the abolition of the slave trade", he "must consider how far it may be proper for [him] to give [his] assent" to the bill. He went on to describe how "this trade must ultimately be abolished, but by moderate measures which shall not invade the property of individuals, nor shock too suddenly the prejudices of our West India Islands."

 

There are several problems with this. In fact, Wilberforce first proposed a motion in the House to abolish slavery in 1791, when it was roundly defeated. When he reintroduced it in 1792, Dundas, who was in the legislature this time, introduced a petition from Edinburgh citizens and pronounced himself against slavery.

Dundas then gave his first speech in the House of Commons on abolition, in which he denounced both the slave trade and slavery and warned his colleagues that public opinion was changing and that certain men’s business interests in the trade were in jeopardy. It was then that he suggested an overture amendment to win over recalcitrant members and added the word “gradual” to the resolution. The purpose of his gambit was to get more support for abolition. Dundas then laid out a plan that would abolish slavery and the trade within seven years. Dundas’s amendment helped secure the support of a majority of MPs.

The resolution was supported by the House of Commons but was then defeated in the House of Lords. There were other successful votes in 1794 and 1799 in favour of a motion to ban slave-trading to foreign territories, and both met the same fate. This showed how impossible it was to move at all on abolition. The Lords were immoveable, and so was King George III.

 

 

The resolution of 1792 showed Dundas’s courage in a hostile political environment. He was always in favour of Wilberforce’s position, but knew that Scottish merchants were disproportionately profiting from the trade and that it would take time to persuade them that there was a more enlightened and perhaps profitable way to run their affairs without slaves.

Dundas managed to convince most of the recalcitrant Scottish MPs to abstain, and those who did vote mostly supported the Wilberforce-Dundas resolution. The point is that Dundas consistently supported an unpopular position and should thus be regarded as a hero of the anti-slavery movement.

At exactly the same time, Dundas, in his role as Home Secretary, appointed a celebrated soldier of the Revolutionary War, John Graves Simcoe, who was a friend to both Dundas and Wilberforce, to the position of Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. It was not an accident that Simcoe’s first priority was to abolish slavery and the slave trade in Upper Canada, making it the first territory of the British Empire, and thus in the world, to pass such legislation. He approved the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada in July 1793,[3] partly in retaliation at the U.S. Congress’s Fugitive Slave Act of February 1793.

 

“Dundas was in fact a hero of the Anti-Slavery movement.”

 

Of course, Simcoe encountered some resistance, but, supported by William Osgoode, the first Chief Justice — also a Dundas appointee — and others, he pressed on and won his case. Reflecting the spirit of his friend, Simcoe pointedly welcomed black freedom-seekers to Upper Canada, confirming a refugee tradition that reached from the Black Loyalists of the Revolutionary War to the Underground Railroad of the 19th century. 

It was as a result of Dundas’s intervention that the House of Commons pronounced itself against slavery, knowing that the King and the Lords would not play along. This is not a trivial point. When today’s opponents of Henry Dundas attribute to him the defeat of abolition, they forget that most of the political establishment was against it.

 

Subscribe to support accurate history reporting, and get $10 off at checkout with the discount code FERRIS

 

Moreover, the incident revealed a difference between Wilberforce and Dundas. The latter consistently argued in favour of ending slavery: for Dundas, it was the only place to start. Wilberforce did not share that view. His focus was on ending the slave trade rather than slavery itself. This was because Wilberforce believed that ending the trade would cause planters to improve conditions for slaves in order to “keep up the numbers” and that in turn improving conditions would eventually bring slavery to an end. It was a naive view that proved to be mistaken after passage of the 1807 Anti-Slave Trade Bill. It would take a long time for Wilberforce to come around. Only in 1823, twelve years after Henry Dundas had died, did Wilberforce help found the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions (my emphasis), taking a page from Dundas’s approach to the problem.

That the 1792 motion had absolutely no hope of passing has been acknowledged by the most severe critics. Even Dr. Stephen Mullen, the historian most relied upon by the City of Toronto staff, has admitted that the “1792 bill had no prospect of passing the Lords.” The hope survives only in the heart of city staff. This was the second “History” paragraph provided by the city:

 

In moving this amendment, Dundas set out a middle-ground proposal that voiced moderate support for abolition, while also acknowledging the arguments of opponents of the bill, who saw the continuation of the slave trade as essential to the economy of the British West Indies. Dundas' intentions for doing so have been subject to debate. Biographer Michael Fry, for example, has interpreted the amendment as a compromise solution that allowed the bill to pass in the House of Commons, laying the groundwork for eventual abolition. On the other hand, peer-reviewed academic research offers different interpretations of his actions. Scottish historian Dr. Glen Doris suggests that Dundas' amendment was motivated by "fear of radical change". Dr. Iain Whyte described how Dundas' amendment "effectively delayed abolition for nearly two decades."

 

Wading skittishly into the historical debate, the City of Toronto report knew which side it favoured: It was the views of Dr. Doris and Dr. Whyte, supporting the report’s thesis. And they ignored a whole range of scholars who had demonstrated that such an interpretation of Dundas was wrongheaded and anti-historical.

Why are experts in the field not being consulted? The work of Sir Tom Devine, widely regarded as authoritative, is not included. Why not Christer Petley’s work on the remarkable independence of slaveholders in the British Caribbean at the time? Or Oxford professor Brian Young’s profound exploration on Dundas’s progressivism? What about University of St. Andrews professor Guy Rowlands, who argued that the war that surrounded the turn of the century made it impossible to end slavery. The fact that such a law was enacted in 1807 revealed the goodwill that gathered around the movement. No acknowledgment is made of how an economic case was built in favour of abolition. The work of the Henry Dundas Committee for Public Education on Historic Scotland, which includes facsimiles of key documents, is nowhere to be found in the Toronto case.

In a recent article in Scottish Affairs, Professor Angela McCarthy highlighted the fact that the peer-reviewed literature has long considered that Dundas supported the Wilberforce resolution out of good will. She demonstrated vividly that there is simply no logic in concluding that Dundas delayed anything.

To return to the City’s report:

 

Dundas' actions following the 1792 parliamentary debate show a clear opposition [sic] to abolition. Wilberforce continued to present an abolition bill every year until 1799 – but as Glen Doris argues, Dundas "worked hard to defeat subsequent bills". He points to a communication between Dundas and Wilberforce in 1794 in which Dundas stated that he had "used all the influence he possessed to prevent the abolition question being raised at any rate while the nation was at war," in reference to Britain's wars with France (1793-1815). The work of historian Roger Buckley shows that from 1795 until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British government sought to enhance its army’s military capability by purchasing approximately 13,400 slaves to serve in the West India Regiments.

 

This highly-distorting passage willfully ignores the constant communication Wilberforce maintained with Dundas — it was not just a single memo. Dundas is mentioned 40 times in Wilberforce’s 1793-1800 diaries, evidence of ongoing dialogue, says the Wilberforce Diaries Project.

The official Toronto passage also suppresses the fact that Wilberforce opposed the abolition of slavery for more than twenty years, even after Britain abolished the trade in 1807.

The text continues:

 

 

As Secretary of War, Dundas was a key architect behind this policy, which made the British Government the largest individual purchaser of slaves during this period. In a paper titled "Henry Dundas: a ‘Great Delayer’ of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade," Dr. Stephen Mullen expands on this work, arguing that Dundas' opposition to abolition after 1792 was grounded in his interest in preserving both the economy of the British West Indies as well as British military capabilities, describing how Dundas "designed a gradual abolition to suit the needs of enslavers and the British state". In a recent interview with the Scottish Herald, Dr. Mullen concludes that scholarship by historians of slavery and abolition is "unequivocal that Henry Dundas played an instrumental role in delaying abolition for vested interests after 1792."

 

This paragraph essentially repeats the previous one, holding Stephen Mullen’s view as authoritative when it emphatically is not. Mentioning the tendentious title of Mullen’s work in the main body of the text, as opposed to putting it in a footnote, reveals the staff report’s bias. It goes on:

 

Whatever the motivation behind his amendment may have been, the consequences of Dundas' actions are clear. Whether he is viewed cynically or as a pragmatist, his actions and those of the British government he served contributed to the perpetuation of the enslavement of human beings. Though Dundas' amendment was adopted and a date for abolition was proposed for 1796, the bill was never enacted by the House of Lords. It would be 1807 before the [Abolition of the] Slave Trade Act was finally passed. During this time, more than half a million Africans were enslaved and trafficked across the Atlantic, many to British colonies.

 

Here again, no evidence is brought forward. The paragraph essentially repeats the same selective argument, except that now the charge is augmented to include 500,000 slaves. Henry Dundas is thus set up as a straw-man to carry the blame for the entire British Empire on his shoulders, all based on his role in the only vote in favour of ending the slave trade. It defies common sense.

As numerous scholars have pointed out, it was Dundas’ predecessor as Home Secretary, William Grenville, the 1st Baron Grenville, who authorized the Governor of Jamaica to purchase on public account the slaves needed to staff the British garrison on the island. Grenville did not enslave people, but he did rent their services. This practice remains historically and ethically murky, but what is clear is that purchase in the late 18th century did not mean “to buy” but instead to “hold” on contract for a period of service. His intention may well have been to release the slaves after the military situation was resolved. Dundas became Secretary of State for War in 1793 and showed his mettle when General Sir John Vaughan asked him repeatedly to authorize the purchase of slaves for black regiments in the British Army. Dundas declined his requests. Vaughan proceeded against Dundas’s orders and in 1795 Dundas ordered a halt to this recruitment. A few weeks later, Dundas was forced to reverse his order and authorized the purchase of some slaves. Dundas wrote to Vaughan again, and this time authorized the purchase of slaves. Dundas noted that it was “the king’s confidential servants,” the cabinet, that made this decision.

 

 

The reality was that ending slavery in the Caribbean in the 1790s was impossible. Scholars have long known that politicians in London were acutely aware of dissent in the colonies (America being the most prominent) and certainly did not want to see other parts of Britain’s Empire lopped off. More recently, historians have documented the high degree of conflict between local legislators and the government’s representatives. In war, they urgently needed to keep those alliances solid, and there was no way slavery or the slave trade could be abolished without the support of the colonial populations. It was a matter of holding off on that demand until emergencies subsided. That window of opportunity did open in 1807.

Not to be overlooked in the background is the serious geopolitical challenge that Britain faced. A slave revolt in St-Domingue (today’s Haiti) had reduced the country to cinders. Britain, at war with France, needed stability in the area in order to fund and supply its military efforts. To suddenly upend slavery there would have impaired that stability and depleted Britain’s treasury and ability to fight. Yes, defeating the Europe-wide bloodbath launched by the French Revolution mattered more than ending the slave trade. At least, this was the feeling in the British political establishment.

The Report goes on:

 

 

Consideration must also be given to Dundas' role in the continued subjugation [sic] of Indigenous peoples in Canada in his capacity as Home Secretary. The Home Secretary held oversight over colonial affairs, and as such was a powerful figure who upheld imperial rule. Drawing on maps produced in the 1780s and 1790s, Professor Thomas Pearce has traced how the origins of the western portion of Dundas Street are traced [sic] back to an Indigenous trail pre-colonialism. The naming of this street, which assumes the path of a traditional Indigenous route, after a colonizer, erases Indigenous presence from the landscape, further calling into question the appropriateness of commemorating it with the Dundas name.

 

This passage reveals again the city staff’s stunning lack of interest in context: it shows no sense or concern for how history is different from mere “fact-collecting” in support of a predetermined position. But that is no surprise given that their underlying motive is political.

If anything, Henry Dundas treasured the alliance struck with indigenous people as a bulwark against any northern expansion of the American Republic. Simcoe formalized the boundaries of the Six Nations Mohawk people almost as soon as he arrived, resolving a conflict that had endured for years. Dundas instructed the Governor at Quebec, Sir Guy Carleton, the 1st Baron Dorchester, that the Crown wished “to show every consistent mark of attention and regard to the Indian Nations” and that any diplomatic interventions with the Americans would strive to protect the interests of the “Indian Nations” such as “... securing to them the peaceable and quiet possession of the Lands which they have hitherto occupied as their hunting Grounds, and such others as may enable them to procure a comfortable subsistence for themselves and their families.” That wording, unlike the City’s report, accurately reflects Dundas’s approach.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Simcoe gave easily recognizable names to the streets of York (as Toronto was named in those days) in order to cement the allegiance of the newly-arrived loyalists to the Upper Canada regime. That is part of the “deep” history of the city that is unknown to the citizens and even to schoolchildren of the City of Toronto.

The creation of a street that would allow for the building of modern residences and businesses may well have been traced upon an older trail but that is in itself a compliment to the indigenous trailblazers. If the exact name of the old trail can be established, I certainly would have no objection to adding it to the signposts. Adding it would lend further charm and depth to the already-rich history behind the street-name. It is worth remembering that the city’s founders were not entirely hostile to indigenous influences — they actually changed the northern English name of York back to a distinctive old Mohawk moniker in 1834. Torontonians today would no doubt share in the spirit of combining an old heritage with another old heritage without erasing the history of the city. But they were never asked.

 

Subscribe to support accurate history reporting, and get $10 off at checkout with the discount code FERRIS

 

CLEARLY, THE CITY of Toronto’s report was a wilful act of historical distortion created to please the whims of a spendthrift 21st century Mayor who thought he was in some political trouble. The city decided to cater to a small, ill-informed minority and never bothered to do its historical homework. The staff woefully failed in carrying out its duty to speak truth to power: it simply caved in to a point of view that did not have the dignity of Toronto and its people at heart. It  should have sought and obtained better accounts of the past according to the standards of the historical discipline and consulted specialists who know the primary sources. Instead, the city has misrepresented the facts, overlooked the best scholarship, misunderstood the context in which Henry Dundas worked and lived, violated every principle of historical interpretation, and chose superficial wokeism.

The staff have caricatured and defamed Dundas as a homicidal villain while pretending that Toronto today is somehow an unchanging echo of Britain in the 18th-century battle of empires and, as such, oppressive and racist. It thinks Dundas should have had the moral compass of a progressive Toronto poseur in 2021. In the light of actual history, Henry Dundas emerges a far more impressive man than his milquetoast 21st century accusers. His life should evoke profound humility in today’s politicians. Instead the opposite happened. Such is the arrogance of our age.

When Dundas lived, Britain was at war with revolutionary France and most politicians put the slavery question at or near the bottom of the public agenda. It was illegal in Britain to own slaves, and for some abolitionists that sufficed. Wilberforce did not help himself much in those debates. He proved a stubborn but ineffective parliamentarian: many people were entirely devoted to abolition but he alienated them. As Britain anticipated another war with expansionist France with the rise of Napoleon, heads returned to military matters.

 

THE CASE AGAINST Henry Dundas in Toronto is as absurd as it was in Edinburgh, except that it is even more ridiculous on the shores of Lake Ontario where the name Dundas was completely divorced from the man named “Henry.” No Torontonian remembered Lord Melville or his contribution to the city, though perhaps they should have. The debate in Scotland has taken a different turn over the past year — as real scholars have entirely demolished the pretensions of the revised plaque, leaving the city council of Edinburgh looking plainly wrongheaded. We can be grateful that the right thing has happened at least in the mother country, if not in the colonial successor society, where for some reason we are much less grounded in history and expertise.

Toronto should also look at what is happening around it. In January this year, the City Council of Mississauga, the sixth largest city of Canada (pop. 750,000) where less than half the population speaks English at home, has voted unanimously against renaming its two-mile stretch of Dundas Street, refusing to foot the bill of almost $2 million. Mississauga wisely concluded that the “interpretations of history” and in particular the “motives and accomplishments of historical figures — are open to controversy and misinterpretation, especially when viewed through a modern lens.” There are no indications yet that the old town of Dundas (which is now part of Hamilton) or the United Counties of Stormont-Dundas and Glengarry in eastern Ontario, will change their name. The town of Belleville has no plans to change the name of its Dundas Street, and neither will London, Burlington, or Oakville.

That leaves doddering old Toronto in the pickle into which John Tory has tipped it. There are now three real policy alternatives. The first is to maintain “Dundas” Street as it was, essentially an anonymous common label familiar to the people living here for two centuries. The second, the better one, would be to rename it “Henry Dundas Street” and take great pride in his accomplishments and in lifelong efforts to defend and help indigenous people and slaves. The third, of course, would be to pay for a massive campaign of name-change, even if it’s for no good reason.

City staff, despite their outrageously and transparently false claims, are convinced that renaming Dundas Street will yield formidable benefits. Demonstrating the impressive power of delusion among superficial revisionists and posturers masquerading as knowledgeable progressives, they believe it will “build the foundation for a stronger, more inclusive and accessible City,” by acknowledging “the legacy of colonialism, oppression, systemic institutionalized racism and the reverberating impacts of displacement and dispossession on the lives of Black, Indigenous and equity-deserving groups past and present.”

That language is just the usual empty symbolism of the left. The staff will be disappointed: John Tory has effectively cancelled those ambitions by indicating, after feeling some embarrassment, that there would be no other name-changes on his watch. Dundas alone is the scapegoat for the ostensible racism of Torontonians and their founding fathers.

Obviously, the iconic Yonge Street will be the next to be renamed if, perhaps after John Tory is gone, the logic of the city’s Report was to be followed, in order to rid Toronto of its dirty colonial identity. We’ve seen Ryerson on its way out. And what about King Street? Queen Street? Victoria? Adelaide? Wellington? Prince Andrew? Prince Edward? Prince Rupert? Prince William? Princess? Perhaps Osgoode Hall should change its name also? Simcoe even?

 

HERE'S AN IDEA: Maybe every single street in the City of Toronto should be given a new name that stretches the boundaries of the unimaginative — more of “Avenue Road” perhaps? That way every Torontonian could share in the feeling of being a rootless, ungrounded, history-free, discombobulated spirit in his own vast soulless cityscape.

John Tory may have concluded that it is too late to correct the wrong course on which he has started, but now that he has announced that he will run for reelection, he really should put a stop to the Dundas hoax. He should install proper committees and procedures to examine Toronto’s impoverished toponymy. If he follows through and Dundas Street’s name is changed and no others, it will stand as a cynical, expensive token gesture and civic pride and democracy will suffer additional damage.

Meanwhile, another petition has been started to rename Dundas Street to honour that great mayor, Rob Ford. There could be no better proof of the descent of politics.

 

SPECIAL TO THE DORCHESTER REVIEW. A shorter version appears in the National Post.

Subscribe to support accurate history reporting, and get $10 off at checkout with the discount code FERRIS

 

NOTES

[1] Antonella Artuso, “Tory Supports Wiping Henry Dundas off City Maps” Toronto Sun, 28 June 2021

[2] The heroic dissenters deserve honourable mention: they were Councillors Gary Crawford, Michael Ford, Mark Grimes, Stephen Holyday, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Frances Nunziata (Chair), and James Pasternak 

[3] “1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada,” Canadian Encyclopedia https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/1793-act-to-limit-slavery-in-upper-canada


Older Post Newer Post


  • Donald Bur on

    Excellent article. Thanks for putting the time and effort into this. Now, if only we could get more people to read it.

  • Jack Cunningham on

    Thanks, Patrice, for a rare breath of sanity on this topic. And shame on John Tory, whom I once respected, but has since surrendered to the ghastly spirit of the age.

  • Dagmar Lowe on

    Congratulations, Dorchester Revue!
    Patrice Dutil took the trouble to familiarise himself with the times and actions of Henry Dundas (unlike the city fathers who went all out for cheap propaganda without historical foundation). I hope the misled citizens of Toronto will protest against a costly and
    unnecessary renaming of Dundas Street; or if you must, change it to Melville Boulevard!

  • Nicholas Rogers on

    Thank you for this hard-hitting informative piece on the Dundas hoax. There are points of emphasis where I would disagree with Patrice Dutil, but much is spot on. I was one of the historians who was not consulted on this issue, even though in the spring of 2020 I published a book on a slave-trade scandal that broke at exactly the same time as Dundas’ motion in the Commons, about which I had something to say. [Murder on the Middle Passage] I should also mention that I tried to publish an op.ed, on the Dundas imbroglio in the Globe and the Star, and did not even get the courtesy of a reply. I am now writing a longer essay on this whole affair and appreciate the long quotes from the City report, To date I had only seen the summary.

  • John DeMarco on

    Thank you for revealing some manner of sanity on the Dundas Fiasco. A Class-Action against John Tory, the other miscreants who supported him on Council and the more than 40 City Staffers who perpetrated this abuse with harm predetermined would address such corruption of process in the largest city in Canada.



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published