People & Culture

Renaming places: how Canada is reexamining the map

The history behind the Dundas name change and how Canadians are reckoning with place name changes across the country — from streets to provinces

  • Jul 22, 2021
  • 4,574 words
  • 19 minutes
Dundas street sign with stop light and stop sign Expand Image

In some ways, there aren’t many streets like Toronto’s Dundas Street. Depending on where you stand on it, you can find yourself 10 blocks south of Bloor, or 15 blocks north of it. The 505 streetcar covers just a small portion of the street, but that short trip will take you from the lights and energy of Dundas Square right downtown, rattling through Chinatown, Little Portugal, up the bustle of Roncesvalles and into the GO train station on the west side. Dundas’ jagged path through the city is a remnant of its origins as a dozen different streets that were, over time, stitched together — streets named Applegrove, Dagmar, Wilton, Whitby, Agnes, Anderson, St Patrick, Arthur and more.

On July 14, Toronto’s city council voted 17-7 to remove the name Dundas from the city’s maps. In Toronto, the name Dundas appears on a public square, a subway station, and most notably, on the major street that crosses the city. The name is changing because, like many places in Canada, it was named after someone whose reputation can’t stand up to the scrutiny of an inclusive society.

Canadians of all colours are taking a second look at our maps in the wake of both the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, and recent discoveries of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools. People are noticing that many of our streets, towns, mountains — and even provinces — are named after figures who rank among history’s worst humans. 

For Dundas Street, the human in question is its namesake, Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, British Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a Scottish businessman, politician and one of the most influential men of his era. He played an important role in the Napoleonic Wars and, to less acclaim, the debate over the abolition of Britain’s slave trade. To the British Anti-Slavery Society of his era, he was known simply as: “the enemy.”

Dundas wasn’t a clear-cut mustache-twirling villain like from the movies. But he wasn’t as “complex” as some make him out to be. Bobby Dundas, a descendent of Henry Dundas, and 10th Viscount Melville, calls him a “politician of vision and integrity” and he, and others, have portrayed Dundas as a pragmatic abolitionist. 

It’s worth taking a short detour into the history books, however, to look at exactly what Dundas did, and how it was viewed at the time. 

Dundas was seen by his contemporaries as a representative of Britain’s colonies — their voice in parliament. And many of those colonies, first among them Jamaica, were tyrannical slave societies where white masters worked Black slaves to death  to produce sugar and profits for the “home country.” 

In 1792, anti-slavery campaigner and member of parliament William Wilberforce petitioned the British parliament to draft a bill for the immediate abolition of the slave trade. The instigating incident for his motion was relayed by Wilberforce to parliament on April 8, 1792: “Last August there arrived at Calabar, on the African Coast, six vessels, three from Liverpool and three from Bristol; when they came to an anchor and learned the price of Slaves, they held a consultation; and it was mutually agreed not to pay the sum or market price — this was refused by the Chieftain, whereupon they drew up towards the town, and fired on it till they nearly reduced it to ashes — until they murdered upwards of twenty of the peaceable inhabitants and compelled the miserable Chieftain to surrender the wretched victims of slavery at their own price.”

Speaking in parliament, Wilberforce described the massacre as a “bloody and inhuman butchery.” At the conclusion of his story, the House of Commons erupted in rage and, according to a reporter from the Leeds Intelligencer, the members present shouted as one: “NAME THEM!” — in reference to the captains of the British ships involved. 

With parliament angered and swayed towards Wilberforce’s plea to end the slave trade, Dundas stepped forward, intervened and agreed that “yes” the trade must be stopped — but only “gradually.” It brings to mind St. Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord, make me good and chaste — but not yet.” St. Augustine’s prayer only put his own soul at risk — while Dundas’ single word arguably damned hundreds of thousands to enduring slavery, and tens of thousands to an early death.

Dundas’ “gradual” abolition ultimately failed in the House of Lords, but the idea persisted and overtook Wilberforce’s push for an immediate end to the slave trade. In the years following the introduction of “gradual” abolition, the London Morning Chronicle of May 22, 1804, declared: “the event, indeed, has shewn it to have been a fraud upon the simple, well-meaning of those … who thought that they could both exterminate this intolerable abuse, and yet respect the accursed profits of its authors … the intentions of the proposers of the gradual scheme was [sic] fraudulent, we cannot entertain a doubt.” The writer went on to call the years of slave trade that continued, thanks to Dundas’ intervention, a “cannibal feast” — stating “such has been the result of that murderous fraud, that felonious compact, the Gradual Abolition.”

If Dundas was a man of “vision and integrity,” it would be news to those who knew him. 

In 1793, the year after Dundas spoke of gradual change, 40,463 Africans were disembarked from British ships and into slavery in the British Caribbean — more than in any other year of the British slave trade. That’s more people than lived in New York City at the time, according to the 1790 census. 345,924 more would arrive on British ships before the trade was finally ended in 1807. It is estimated that for every 100 enslaved Africans arriving in America, around 40 died — either during the “middle passage” or during the march to or, internment on, the African coast. That statistic translates into approximately 154,555 lives lost during the 15-year period between 1792 and 1807. That is a massacre on par with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Dundas, the man behind the “cannibal feast”, was a bad person, something that people of his era recognized. They blamed him for the torture and deaths of slaves that endured for many more years than it had to. 

However, he was a good friend of the colonies — no matter how wicked their policies. That friendship extended to Lord John Graves Simcoe, the Governor of Upper Canada, and a parliamentary colleague of both Wilberforce and Dundas . Simcoe named a newly built colonial road after Dundas, one that connected London, Ont., with a community near Hamilton that would eventually be re-christened as Dundas — it’s from this town that Toronto’s Dundas Street takes its controversial name.

In the centuries since it was named, the man, Dundas, has largely been forgotten — until recently. Dundas Street, Dundas Square, North Dundas, South Dundas have, to many people, become empty sounds, representing nothing more than a point on a map, a spot to meet or the place to go for authentic Chinese food.

In the last few years, people have begun to look more critically at signs, statues and place names — and the people that they honour, including Henry Dundas. One of the people taking a critical view of Dundas is Virginia Dipierro. Dipierro is a resident of yet another Dundas on the map: the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry in eastern Ontario — aka Cornwall, Ont. She started an online petition last year to change the name of Dundas County.

Dipierro says that Dundas was “a racist criminal who never set foot in Ontario.” She centres her desire for change within the Black Lives Matter movement, saying: “That’s everywhere. That’s not south of the border. [Dundas supporters] better open their eyes because it’s right here.”

The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t new, but it’s as strong or stronger than ever due to the global outrage over the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Within view of numerous witnesses, and cameras, Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck — he remained there for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, as Floyd pleaded for his life, said “I can’t breathe,” called out for his mother, then died.

Following Floyd’s killing, protests and marches occurred in thousands of cities around the world. Protesters called out for justice and condemned systemic racism. As the protesters marched, some noticed that the statues they marched past were built to honour people as racist and as cruel as Chauvin. Some protesters toppled those statues. Others noticed that the streets they marched down were named after Klansmen, Confederate generals, slave traders and genocidal “explorers.” In some cases, these signs came down and names were changed. 

In other places, especially those where non-white populations are small — such as in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry — it has been more of a fight. 

In an interview with Dundas County’s Morrisburg Leader, South Dundas mayor Steven Byvelds reacted to Dipierro’s petition by talking about what can be learned by keeping the name: “There’s no doubt [Dundas’] actions were wrong … Unfortunately, we can’t change what happened, but we can learn from it.”

This view is repeated by many opponents of this and other name changes. Last year, Dan Hutchinson from Dundas, Ont., created a petition opposing the removal of Dundas’ name from his community — it received more than 4,000 signatures. “Our town name is not just the man it was named after. Most people didn’t even know who he was until virtue signally activists brought it up,” writes Hutchinson in his petition. “It’s our history. Our home. Our personal touchstone in this world. It’s where we grew up, lived our lives and where our families are buried. It is all our collective histories. Not one man.”

Dipierro dismisses the history argument, saying “when people say we can’t change the past, it doesn’t make sense to me because we’re not living in the past. These names are here and now … these are people who were just, well, they’re not representative of today’s Canada. ” 

If you want to take a more charitable view of the opponents of name changes, a part of the “history argument” that better stands up to scrutiny comes from one of the opponents of the Dundas name change: “the name Dundas evokes memories or thoughts of either the town, street or both. Not the person it was named for. So the name no longer honours the person. It honours the town and its people and our legacy. ”

One history lesson you can take away from the names on Canada’s map is that names change all the time. Canadians might be surprised to learn how frequently the names on our map change — it’s something that happens several times a week. 

Connie Wyatt Anderson is the chair of a little-known federal agency called the Geographical Names Board of Canada. Since 1897, her organization, and its 13 provincial and territorial partners, have been responsible for the name changes you see on your map.

Wyatt Anderson explains that the number of new and changed names “fluctuates every year  … in the most recent year, 2019-2020, we added over 750 names to the database — of the 750 we added, about 100 were changes to existing names.” 

“Place names are like any historical force — they give you a mirror on society,” says Wyatt Anderson. “They look back and they look to the present. Sometimes they don’t reflect an area.” 

The process that Virginia Dipierro has undertaken, at the local level, to change the name of her county, is — in spite of what critics might say — the right way to go about changing a name that no longer reflects the area. Wyatt Anderson explains how the process should work: “Let’s say I live in the Pas, Manitoba, and the name of the river behind me, I find it offensive, so I bring it forward. I can write to my [geographical] naming authority in Manitoba. What the naming authority typically does is work with local community members, Indigenous groups, and work to implement a change.”

Anyone can propose changing the name of a geographical feature in Canada — the Geographical Names Board of Canada even has a helpful form to fill out.

Proposed changes don’t just come from the public; they also come from the government naming bodies themselves. According to Wyatt Anderson, “across Canada there seems to be more of a movement to look at [name changes]. British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Nunavut are jurisdictions that have seen quite a few looks at the names in those jurisdictions.” 

Something you will notice immediately when looking at the lists of recently named or renamed places is that many — if not the majority — now bear Indigenous names . Lac Kâ Shîpetinâch, Manitou Minisees and Akokotaywining have all regained their places on the map in recent years.

One of the biggest of these name changes — at least, geographically — was to the 5,075 square-kilometre Powell River Regional District in British Columbia. 

B.C. is divided into 27 regional districts — like counties in other parts of Canada, regional districts coordinate local governments within their boundaries, and provide municipal services for unincorporated areas. In 2017, citing confusion between the city of Powell River and the regional district of the same name, the district launched a process to change its name. 

District chair Patrick Brabazon approached local First Nations for a suggestion. Clint Williams, the “hegus” or “leader” of the Tla’amin Nation came back with the word “qathet,” a Tla’amin word meaning “working together.”

When picking a name for a regional district, the government is usually required to draw on the name of an important geographical feature in the area. For qathet, they made an exception. Speaking to Vancouver Island’s CHEK News, Brabazon explained that he “couldn’t think of any single name that could encompass the entire regional district. Is there a word in Tla’amin? Well, it turns out there isn’t. They’ve got over 500 place names for various areas around our regional district, but there’s no single place name that covers the whole thing.” 

Besides confusion with the city of Powell River, another reason people chose to change the name was that Powell River was named after Israel Wood Powell — the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for B.C. between 1872 and 1884. Even though Powell wasn’t the worst figure of his day, he shared in its quotidian racism — and oversaw some of the worst years of oppression, and dispossession of First Nations people in B.C. Or, as hegus Williams summarized it during the name change process: “there’s not a lovely history”.

Renaming Powell River to qathet mirrors other changes in B.C. in recent decades, such as changing the name of the Queen Charlotte Islands back to Haida Gwaii, or naming the interconnected waters of the strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound as the Salish Sea. Each name took on the name of First Nations people of the region.

These changes are important, but they’re only a first step. There is one geographic name that’s been overlooked, one due for a change, a name that combines imperialism with genocide — a name that honours one of the most monstrous figures ever to live: British Columbia. 

The imperial connection in B.C.’s name is clear enough, though the connection to Columbus is debated. 

B.C. got its name in 1858, during the Fraser River gold rush. It began while the land we now call B.C. was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The HBC operated trading posts but had made no attempts at colonization. When news of the discovery of gold on the Thompson River reached California, thousands of miners uprooted and headed north. Tens of thousands of Americans would come, putting at risk Britain’s claim to the region. In order to solidify its position, Britain hastily began the process of turning the mainland into a colony, initially called New Caledonia. 

Sir Bulwer Lytton introduced the New Caledonia bill and shepherded it through parliament. Lytton is commemorated in B.C. in the name of the town of Lytton in the province’s southwest. (History better remembers him for his side job as a writer. Lytton is credited both with writing what many consider to be the worst opening line of any book ever — “It was a dark and stormy night” — and a line so good, it’s become a truism: “the pen is mightier than the sword”.) 

However, as Lytton’s New Caledonia legislation moved its way through the British parliament, objections were raised about the name. During a second reading of the bill on July 8, 1858, another MP, referred to only as Mr. White in the parliamentary record, stated his objection to “New Caledonia” and suggested that parliament “should follow the fashion which had of late years been set by America of adopting the native name … they were bound to perpetuate the aboriginal names in all those districts as much as possible.”

A few days later, in a discussion with fellow MP John Arthur Roebuck, Lytton debated several alternative names for the new colony, including Pacifica and New Albion, with Roebuck recommending that “the Indian name should be sought out and adopted in a translated shape.”
An Indigenous name was the leading contender in parliament. However with time pressing, and communication with the new colony slow, Lytton was forced to settle the matter himself. He was uncharacteristically short for words, so he presented the problem to Queen Victoria. On July 24, the royal response came back.

In a letter addressed to Lytton from the Queen’s consort, Prince Albert, the choice of the name is explained: “The only name which is given to the whole territory in every map the Queen has consulted is ‘Columbia,’ but as there exists also a Columbia in South America, and the citizens of the United States call their country also Columbia, at least in poetry, ‘British Columbia’ might be, in the Queen’s opinion, the best Name.” 

The London Morning Post of 26 July, 1858, records the colonial secretary, Lord Carnarvon, giving a slightly different explanation for the name. “The great discoverer of the North American Continent, it must be admitted, has received but scanty justice at the hands of the Anglo-Saxon race. Amerigo Vespucci has monopolised an honour which of right belongs to Christopher Columbus,” wrote Carnavon. “Accepting therefore the gracious decision of her Majesty as a recognition of the illustrious services of Columbus, we have only to express our fervent hope that this new but distant home of British Industry and civilisation may long flourish.”

There are some who claim that British Columbia’s name is meant to distinguish it from “American Columbia,” which, according to this argument, is made up of Oregon and Washington states. Others claim the province is named after the Columbia River or after the 18th century American ship, the Columbia Rediviva. But whether at two, three or four steps removed — the origin of the name is Christopher Columbus. 

Once chosen, the name British Columbia proved to be a disappointment. The Duke of Newcastle is reported to have said that “the new name of ‘British Columbia’ was neither very felicitous or very original. ” On July 27, 1858, the London Morning Chronicle explained at length that the name British Columbia was “cumbrous and awkward, attesting to a poverty of invention in the Colonial Office”. They concluded that the “awkward and sinister appellation” “must augur an existence of turmoil, trouble, and vicissitude for ‘British Columbia.’”

British Columbia was, and is, a poor choice of a name for somewhere so beautiful. However, we do not need to continue to be bound by a name dictated by expediency, a name which honours such a terrible person.

In the year 2021, there are few people left who see Christopher Columbus as a person worth honouring. Across the world, his statues have come down, his name has been removed from schools, parks and holidays. Columbus’ crimes are well documented. They include murder, rape, slavery and genocide. Almost single-handedly, he is responsible for reducing the population of the island of Hispaniola from 300,000 to 500 over just a few decades. He was such a criminal that even the masters of the Spanish Inquisition put him on trial for his cruelty.

Knowledge of Columbus’ crimes isn’t the product of 21st century revisionism, either. For example, take this extract from the letter of an English chaplain in the Caribbean, dated Aug. 26, 1740: “these are the remains of the original Indians, Natives of the continent, who were massacred by thousands upon the first invasion of the Spaniards under Columbus &c. and who bear an inveterate hatred, and an implacable aversion to the name.”

Columbus ranks with Pol Pot, King Leopold, Stalin and even Hitler in a pantheon of inhuman evil. Continuing to celebrate such a person is to overlook the treatment of the Indigenous Peoples of this continent. His name on the map is a remnant of days gone by when politicians would say things like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” 

Back in Dundas County, Virginia Dipierro explains why names like this have to go. “It’s about decolonizing our language, decolonizing our perception,” she says. “It’s not big, I’m not saying it would be an ‘end.’ It would be very wrong to say it’s a good faith move. It’s not. We owe this. We owe our diverse people of Canada.”

Wyatt Anderson, too, identifies offensive names as a particular problem: “Names that were acceptable generations ago aren’t acceptable in today’s society. Our values evolve over time — and geographical names are exactly the same.”

The name British Columbia is unquestionably offensive in this or any era. The name was never meant as anything but a placeholder, disliked at its own inception; it became the name of the colony, and then the province, because time and distance prevented the founders from finding their preferred choice — an Indigenous name.

Canada is in a process now of Indigenizing its map, returning names of significance and beauty to the landscape where First Nations and Inuit have lived for so long. 

When British Columbia was christened as a colony, it was done at a place called Fort Langley. The Fort was next to an Indigenous village called Kwantlen. In 1858, when the colony was proclaimed, the people of Kwantlen were invited into the fort for the ceremony, among them was a man named Gabriel — also known as Staqoset. 

Staqoset was a leader among the Kwantlen people — his father made first contact with the Europeans. His name lives on today in Kwantlen’s current chief, and also in former B.C. Lieutenant Governor Steven Point. They have been given “Staqoset” as their “Indian name.” 

By coincidence, Gabriel was my great- great- great- great-grandfather — and is an ancestor I share with Fern Gabriel, a school teacher in Langley, B.C., and a teacher of language and culture from Kwantlen First Nation. She agrees that Staqoset would have likely been the person to speak at the fort on Kwantlen’s behalf. 

Inside the fort, the person given the job of reading the colonial proclamation was Governor James Douglas, governor of the colony of Vancouver Island and newly appointed leader of British Columbia. Douglas was born in Guayana to a mixed-race Black mother, and white British father. He married a Métis woman, and by all accounts, wasn’t what you might expect from a 19th century colonial official — more so than many of his contemporaries, he could work with First Nations Peoples. It is easy to imagine him meeting Staqoset at Fort Langley and, following the wishes of the Imperial parliament, determining the Native name of the country. 

The holders of the name Staqoset are strong believers in our traditional faith, and any answer on an issue of this importance, would be grounded in “scripture”. The most appropriate for the occasion would come from our version of Genesis, telling the story of how the land that Douglas sought to rule came to be: 

“Long long ago,
Before anything was,
Save only the heavens,
From the seat of his golden throne
The Sun God looked out on the Moon Goddess and found her beautiful

Hour after hour
With hopeless love,
He watched the spot where, at evening,
She would sometimes come out to wander
Through her silver garden
In the cool of the dusk

Far he sent his gaze across the heavens
Until the time came, one day
When she returned his look of love
And she too sat lonely
Turning eyes of wistful longing
Toward her distant lover

Then their thoughts of love and longing
Seeking each other
Met halfway
Hung suspended in space…
Thus: the beginning of the world.”

I ask Fern Gabriel what word our shared ancestor would have used for “the world,” as described in that passage. Without hesitation, she replies in h?n?q??min??m?, Staqoset’s mother tongue: “S’ólh Téméxw”.

Pronounced “Soul Tow-mock,” S’ólh Téméxw means “our land,” or “our world” — a term still in use by the descendants of Staqoset, employed to describe the Lower Mainland region of B.C. You could call S’ólh Téméxw B.C.’s “Indian Name” — it’s a name that connects to a deeper history. 

Indigenous names aren’t like they’re presented in the popular imagination, at least not for my people. They’re more like titles, they carry with them personality traits, and stories that each holder of the name shares — and they let a piece of our ancestors live on across the centuries. The name S’ólh Téméxw does the same — it shows that what we currently call B.C. isn’t a young land, devoid of history. The name acknowledges the lasting presence of the thousands of generations that have lived here. It shows that B.C. is somewhere very old. 

The name British Columbia may have a history separate from Columbus, but the name the British said would “augur an existence of turmoil, trouble, and vicissitude” did just that for First Nations people as well as for people of colour. British Columbia is a name that marks a moment in time for this region, a moment which we have moved on from, and yes: a moment which should be buried. 

Imagine Douglas and Staqoset looking out from the fort at the end of their ceremony. They would look out to the village, and all the lands beyond it. They’d look to the river we call the Sto:lo, now called the Fraser; the mountain we call T’lagunna, now called Golden Ears; the volcano we call Kulshan, now called Mount Baker — these features of the world and everything beyond were known to Staqoset. They were teeming with his people, their histories and their names — monuments to them that have since been torn down. But with the new name, a piece of their world wouldn’t just endure, but grow larger.

With a little extra time, S’ólh Téméxw might have been the name chosen for British Columbia. It’s a name that shows that this isn’t the edge of the world, but its heart — a place legend says is the physical manifestation of the love and longing of the gods themselves. 

S’ólh Téméxw doesn’t appear on any maps today. But names change all the time. 


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