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“We have to stop celebrating Henry Dundas”: A social advocate on why renaming Dundas Street is worth the $8.6-million price tag

Lanrick Bennett, a vocal supporter of the renaming, breaks down the street’s relationship to white supremacy and addresses the “pathetic” resistance from three former Toronto mayors

By Ali Amad| Photography by Jessica Rondeau
“We have to stop celebrating Henry Dundas”: A social advocate on why renaming Dundas Street is worth the $8.6-million price tag

Two years ago, a plan to rename Dundas Street received the municipal seal of approval. After a petition outlining Scottish politician Henry Dundas’s pivotal role in delaying the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade gathered over 14,000 signatures, city councillors overwhelmingly voted in favour of renaming the 23-kilometre thoroughfare. But, as council awaits a shortlist of potential names, sentiment has shifted among some members.

While Mayor Olivia Chow remains a staunch supporter of the plan, Councillor Shelley Carroll—who originally voted in favour of the renaming—expressed concerns this month about the projected $8.6-million cost of changing more than 730 street signs in addition to signage and maps for Yonge-Dundas Square, three parks and two subway stations. Even some long-retired politicians have jumped into the fray. Last week, three former Toronto mayors—David Crombie, Art Eggleton and John Sewell—jointly signed a letter urging the city to reconsider its decision. They argued that Dundas was in fact a “committed abolitionist,” though, notably, their letter did not include any citations for that claim.

According to Lanrick Bennett, a vocal proponent of the renaming who works in urban planning, all these arguments sidestep the core issue: the city’s willingness to continue honouring someone whose actions contributed to the enslavement and trafficking of more than 500,000 Africans (out of over 12 million affected during the slave trade’s 400-year history). “It’s painful to hear former and current elected officials defending Dundas or disregarding the weight of his actions,” he says. Here, Bennett explains why he believes the benefits of renaming far outweigh the cost.


Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you get involved in the Dundas renaming project? My parents are Jamaican immigrants who moved to Canada in the 1970s and settled in Mississauga. I actually grew up near Dundas Street West. I didn’t know the history of Dundas himself back then, but I was surrounded by anti-Black racism. I’ve been carded by Toronto police multiple times, just for taking walks in the park. So I’ve been working to create inclusive spaces for a long time now. Today, I’m the executive director of the Laneway Project, which transforms underused laneways into thriving cultural spaces. Andrew Lochhead, who created the petition to rename Dundas Street, is actually a former colleague of mine. After I saw it, I researched the matter and decided to support it.

Was that when you first learned about Henry Dundas? Yes. I was gutted but not surprised. So many of Toronto’s street names are wrapped up in the legacies of white men with checkered pasts.

Right—if you threw a rock in Toronto, you’d likely hit a street named after someone who supported the slave trade. So why Dundas? This is an individual who has been given massive prominence. Dundas is one of our busiest streets, and Yonge-Dundas Square is a main attraction. There’s even a public school named after him, where many Black students are enrolled. How can we expect them to attend a school named after someone who would probably have had zero qualms about putting children like them in shackles? That said, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop at Dundas. It’s about creating a template we can use to rename other streets that celebrate racism.

Some have argued that a street name is just a street name, especially when few people knew who Henry Dundas was before all this.  Street names and public monuments reflect the character of a place. They shape our values. Now that we know who Dundas was, we have to stop celebrating him. That doesn’t mean putting up a plaque. It means doing the work to dismantle the symbols of white supremacy. Brushing that responsibility aside is unacceptable.

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City council is now saying there isn’t enough money for the renaming, especially given a Covid-related shortfall of $1.5 billion over the next two years. Do you still think the renaming should go ahead as scheduled? It’s important to put the estimated cost of renaming in context: $8.6 million is a negligible fraction of the City of Toronto’s $16-billion operating budget—less than a tenth of a single per cent. If we can’t be bothered to dedicate such a small amount of our budget to addressing systemic white supremacy, what does that say about our elected officials? Do they feel that Black lives actually matter? If they’re going to fight to reverse this decision, I don’t think they do.

Lanrick Bennet says that the cost of renaming DUndas STreet West is a tiny portion of the City's annual budget

In a recent letter, three of Toronto’s former mayors wrote that Henry Dundas actually pushed for a gradual approach in order to facilitate the eventual enactment of abolition legislation. Basically, they’re arguing that he was making a short-term concession for long-term good. What do you make of that? The city has provided peer-reviewed sources, particularly the work of history professor Stephen Mullen at the University of Glasgow, that clearly illustrate how Dundas delayed abolition to benefit enslavers and organizations that relied heavily on slave labour, like the British military. Normally, I would offer to sit down with the former mayors for a discussion, but I don’t believe that they want dialogue. Their posturing isn’t about concern for historical inaccuracies—it’s them trying to make themselves seem relevant. It’s pathetic. I never knew them to be allies of the Black community, so I’m not losing any sleep over their words.

That same letter was shared on Twitter by lawyer and ex–CBC reporter Jennifer Dundas, a descendant of Henry Dundas. She has frequently defended Henry Dundas and claims that historians have the story all wrong. It must have been a shock to discover such terrible things about an ancestor, and I’m sure she’s just trying to protect her family’s legacy. I’d advise her to try to look through the eyes of the people affected by the destructive system Henry Dundas was part of.

Do you hope the renaming will have some tangible effect on racism in the city? Racism won’t decrease just because we changed the name of a street. But I do think it will help knock individuals like Henry Dundas off the pedestals we’ve placed them on. Hopefully, it opens the floodgates to more conversations and more action. For example, we need our school boards and libraries to provide programming and courses that explore Black stories year-round rather than just during Black History Month, in February, or Emancipation Month, in August.

Are there any examples of street renaming in other cities or countries that we can learn from? Well, many people aren’t aware that streets get renamed all the time right here in Toronto. For example, we renamed Russell Street, near College and Spadina, in 2020. Peter Russell was a notorious enslaver and anti-abolitionist. The street’s name was changed to Ursula Franklin Street, after a renowned feminist and physicist who taught at U of T for more than 40 years. Dundas Street is much bigger, and the process will be more involved, but this isn’t an unprecedented move.

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Given all the criticisms and budgetary concerns, are you feeling optimistic? The ship has sailed. The decision was already made back in 2021. I’m glad that Mayor Chow has spoken publicly in favour of the renaming, and with her as mayor, I’m confident that matters will proceed as planned.

And what if the city does reverse its decision? That would be equivalent to saying that we don’t care about Dundas’s history or the history of racism and slavery. How horrible is that? My mom has lived in Canada for more than 50 years. Each year, she attends the CNE. It’s the place where her Canadian citizenship ceremony was held. In her mind, the CNE represents a place where everyone can come together to celebrate our diversity. If we decide to go the other way with the Dundas renaming, I think she would lose that hope and that positive mindset. This is Toronto’s time to step up. If we want to be worthy of our motto, “Diversity, Our Strength,” this is where we have to start.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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