Ontario discusses changing county names linked to slavery

Jun 22, 2020

Following the many protests around the world against racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests have also gained momentum to remove names and symbols associated with slavery or racism in history, and it has been having an impact in two eastern Ontario counties.

Henry Dundas, First Viscount Melville, July 15, 1795.
Credit Library and Archives Canada, 1936-083 PIC

Dundas County, part of the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry was named in 1792 after Henry Dundas, the First Viscount Melville (1742-1811).  Dundas was from Scotland and served in various cabinet positions, including Home Secretary and Secretary of War. Nicknamed “the great tyrant,” one of Dundas’ dubious political accomplishments was delaying the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire by 15 years. It was originally to end in 1792, but Dundas staved it off until 1807. The ownership of slaves in the British Empire was abolished in 1834.

In 1808, Dundas was the last person to be impeached in Britain for the misuse of public funds. He was acquitted, but it ended his political career.

In addition to Dundas County, Dundas Street, an early settlement, military, and post road, was named after Henry Dundas. It ended up forming much of the route of present-day Highways 2 and 5 across Ontario. There is a Dundas Street in at least seven Ontario cities and towns through which that early road passed. There is also a community named Dundas near Hamilton.

Toronto Mayor John Tory recently said he was open to reconsidering the name of one of that city’s major streets.

North Dundas Township in Dundas County includes the villages of Winchester and Chesterville. Mayor Tony Fraser said he has only received one comment about the questionable origins of the municipality’s namesake but more about how the name should stay as is. “I have received many comments about how proud people are that they live in North Dundas and feel that a name change is unnecessary and unwarranted,” said Fraser.

The Municipality of South Dundas fronts the St. Lawrence River and includes the villages of Morrisburg, Iroquois, and Upper Canada Village. Mayor Steven Byvelds said he has heard “rumblings” on Facebook of suggestions the name should be changed but has not seen them himself because he does not use Facebook. Byvelds said he has not heard any suggestions from council either.

Both North and South Dundas were formed in 1998 because of municipal amalgamation, long after Henry Dundas was gone.

Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Warden Frank Prevost, who is the head of the county government said he has not had any requests that the counties consider changing the Dundas name.

Russell 

Peter Russell
Credit Library and Archives Canada. 1936-86-1

To the north in Russell Township, in the United Counties of Prescott and Russell, an online petition was started to change the name of Russell Township because the township’s namesake, Peter Russell, owned slaves. Peter Russell (1733-1808) was the administrator of Upper Canada between 1796 and 1799.

Russell County, and Russell Township were named after Peter Russell in 1798. The post office in the Village of Russell was named in 1848 with developer William Duncan as the postmaster. Four years later, his son, John, succeeded him as postmaster and renamed the community Duncanville, but the post office name remained as Russell. The village was renamed Russell in 1898.

In 1820, the administration of Russell County was combined with Prescott County to form the United Counties of Prescott and Russell. 

According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Peter Russell was born in Cork, Ireland in 1733 and died in York (now Toronto) in 1808. His life was an economic roller coaster of gambling, politics, military exploits, and business. At one point he owned a tobacco plantation in Virginia, spent time in prison for unpaid debts, and was continually trying to earn money, land, and military or political influence.

Vankleek Hill Museum Registrar Michelle Landriault said that at one point, in one of his periods of poverty, Russell lamented that he did not have the money to invest in the slave market. Later, when he did own slaves, he auctioned a mother and son off even though the woman’s husband — the father of her son — was already a freed man.

Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself within the British Empire was abolished in 1834.

Landriault said that there is no evidence that Russell ever visited the village, township, and county named after him.

Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux, who is also Warden of the UCPR, introduced a notice of motion at the June 15 township council meeting to address the issue of Peter Russell.

The motion states that Peter Russell’s values do not reflect those of the township’s current residents and that Russell seeks to be a “kind-hearted”, inclusive community. It recognizes the “offensive nature” of Peter Russell and states that the municipality and community do not share his values.

In August 2018, MoneySense magazine ranked Russell as the third-best place to live in Canada.

While acknowledging that the name could be hurtful and disrespectful to residents, Leroux’s motion proposes maintaining the Russell name but rededicating it after someone with the first, middle, or family name Russell who is worthy of the honour. A vetting committee would be established to evaluate and make recommendations of other possible Russell’s to council.