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Patrice Dutil: Erasing Ryerson, and the Henry Dundas hoax


Toronto should abandon the idea of renaming Dundas Street. Otherwise, the city would simply be falling for a very costly hoax, the second in as many years

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The renaming of Ryerson University on Tuesday was driven by a systematic process of shaming Canadian history by outright distortions and gross misunderstandings. The costly endeavour is being rebooted by the City of Toronto when it comes to Dundas Street. Hogtown is again out of step.

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Across Ontario, cities, towns and counties are quietly shelving the idea that their Dundas Street should be renamed. That idea was sparked in Toronto in 2020 when Mayor John Tory asked city staff to dig up dirt on Henry Dundas (1742-1811), a Scot who had served as home secretary and then secretary of war in the British government at the time of the French Revolution. The mayor needed to justify the change of a street name that has been a fixture in Toronto for over 200 years.

The report was submitted last year and, of course, recommended that the city rename the street. The cost was estimated at over $6 million. It was accepted by city council, including the mayor, but the vote was far from unanimous. It’s now time for John Tory to state his position, especially since he has announced that he will run for a third term.

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The staff report was written by people with clearly very little background in history. It devoted seven paragraphs to Henry Dundas and made outrageous claims:

  • that in 1792, Dundas proposed an amendment to William Wilberforce’s “bill,” adding the word “gradually” to the text and “effectively delayed abolition for nearly two decades”;
  • Dundas was “a key architect” behind a policy that enslaved 13,400 men who were “purchased” to serve in British West India Regiments;
  • as a result of Dundas’ actions, up to half a million people were enslaved and trafficked across the Atlantic;
  • Dundas was responsible for the “continued subjugation of Indigenous peoples in Canada”; and
  • Dundas was responsible for the defeat of French forces in Egypt, thus “enabling England to enforce colonial control of India,” and in fact played a key part in the expansion of Britain’s presence and influence in India.

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Each claim represents a grave misreading of history. There is no denying that Dundas was responsible for amending the 1792 resolution (it was not a bill) so that the slave trade “ought gradually to be abolished.” Dundas had the full support of William Wilberforce (who 30 years later created the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions).

Dundas’ crucial amendment was actually smart — it allowed the resolution to be accepted by the House of Commons, the first statement ever against slavery. A resolution to abolish the slave trade had been proposed by Wilberforce in 1791 and had been rejected. The same thing would have happened in 1792 without Dundas’ intervention. Either way, any resolution against the slave trade would have come to nothing because both the House of Lords and King George III were absolutely against abolition.

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Not content with a mere word-amendment, Dundas actually laid out a plan that would abolish slavery within seven years, in time for the new century. The resolution of 1792 also showed Dundas’ unique courage. He managed to convince most of the recalcitrant Scottish MPs to abstain on that vote, and those who did vote mostly voted to support the Wilberforce/Dundas resolution. The point is that Dundas had the courage to stick his neck out and consistently supported a position that was unpopular among Scots who did profit from the slave trade.

Dundas had unique authority and his actions spoke louder than his words. Earlier, in his role as home secretary, he appointed John Graves Simcoe (a friend to him and Wilberforce) to the position of lieutenant governor or 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 to pass such legislation. Of course, he encountered some resistance, but Simcoe — supported in part by William Osgoode, the first chief justice of Upper Canada, also a Dundas appointee — pressed on and won his case. Simcoe, reflecting the true spirit of Henry Dundas, pointedly welcomed Black freedom seekers to Upper Canada.

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Dundas’ hatred of slavery was again obvious to his colleagues when he became the war secretary in 1793. Gen. Sir John Vaughan asked him repeatedly to authorize the use of slaves to create Black regiments. Dundas declined his requests. Vaughan proceeded against Dundas’ 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 recruitment of some slaves. Dundas agreed reluctantly, noting that it was “the king’s confidential servants” — i.e., cabinet — that made this decision.

The staff report showed again a stunning lack of interest in context in levelling charges against Dundas with regards to the Indigenous population. It provided no proof for its claim. The truth is that Henry Dundas treasured the alliance struck with Indigenous communities as a bulwark against any expansion of the American republic to the north.

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In fact, with Dundas’ blessing, Simcoe formalized the boundaries of the Six Nations community almost as soon as he arrived, resolving a conflict that had endured for years. Dundas instructed Sir Guy Carleton (Baron Dorchester) to remember 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 seek to protect the “peaceable and quiet possession of the lands which they have hitherto occupied as their hunting grounds,” so that they could enjoy “a comfortable subsistence for themselves and their families.”

Henry Dundas was a man to be celebrated, in his time and to this day, as a visionary and enlightened man. Mayor Tory, along with city council, should do what all the other cities along Lake Ontario have done and abandon the idea of renaming Dundas Street. Otherwise, the city would simply be falling for a very costly hoax, the second in as many years.

National Post

Patrice Dutil is professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University. A longer version of this article will soon appear in the Dorchester Review.

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