Joe Martin: Let Dundas Street remain Dundas Street

History needs to understand the difficulties faced by reformers who must confront political and social realitiesAuthor of the article:

Joe Martin, Special to Financial Post

Publishing date:Jul 30, 2021  

A Dundas Street West sign is shown in Toronto.
A Dundas Street West sign is shown in Toronto. PHOTO BY GIORDANO CIAMPINI /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Toronto city council’s recent decision to rename Dundas Street explained why the street was to be renamed but not why it was called Dundas Street in the first place. Why would what has become a major artery in Canada’s metropolis be named after Henry Dundas, a powerful British politician of the late 18th century, the “Uncrowned King of Scotland”?

In fact, why Dundas Street — and also the town of Dundas, near Hamilton — got its name is not hard to understand: Henry Dundas was a hero to his Canadian contemporaries.

In the 1790s, as a powerful new country consolidated itself to the south, the British colony of Upper Canada faced what today we would call an existential crisis. When John Graves Simcoe, after whom Monday’s civic holiday in Toronto is named, arrived in the colony in 1792 his over-riding concern as Lieutenant Governor was defence against the United States. He was right to be concerned. Upper Canada had a population of only 14,000 versus neighbouring New York state’s 340,000.

Simcoe’s first action was to move the capital from Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) to the new community of York (where modern-day Toronto is). That done, military roads were required: one north to connect the upper and lower Great Lakes (to be called Yonge Street) and one southwest, a great military road to connect the Port of Toronto with the Thames River and Detroit, which was still a British possession. In all these actions, Simcoe was supported by British secretary of war, Henry Dundas, right-hand-man to Prime Minister William Pitt. It was only natural that the military road to Detroit acquired the name Dundas Street, just as Yonge Street was named after his predecessor as minister of war, Sir George Yonge.

History proved that Simcoe was right to be concerned about American invasion. Less than two decades after Simcoe’s departure from muddy York the Americans invaded Upper Canada. In April 1813 a large military force landed west of York. Supported by the guns of the U.S. Navy, the enemy army pushed the outnumbered defenders eastwards to Fort York. A six-hour battle ended when the British blew up the fort’s gunpowder magazine and retreated to Kingston.

After the battle, U.S. forces occupied York for six days. Despite agreeing in the terms of capitulation to respect private property and allow the civil government to continue functioning without hindrance, the Americans looted dwellings and torched the governor’s home and the buildings where parliament met. The invaders returned in July to a defenceless York, burned military facilities they had missed in April and took flour, boats and cannon. The next year, 1814, as peace negotiations began, the British returned the favour, setting torch to both the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

Apart from organizing the defence of Upper Canada, Simcoe is probably best known for 1793 legislation outlawing further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada, a measure that reflected his personal abhorrence of slavery.

In England at the same time Hull’s William Wilberforce was leading the campaign against slavery. Like Dundas, Wilberforce was a close friend of Prime Minister Pitt. Even so, his original 1792 motion to abolish the slave trade was defeated 230 to 85 in the House of Commons. But, as amended by Dundas to include the word “gradual,” it passed 193 to 125 — the first time an abolitionist bill had passed the Commons. Today there is sharp disagreement between those who condemn Dundas for his pragmatism and those who support his gradual approach. What is completely clear, however, is that an abrupt change would not have received a majority in the Parliament of the day.

Former British foreign minister and Conservative Party leader William Hague has argued that Pitt discussed the amendment with Dundas before Dundas proposed it. Though Pitt himself argued passionately that the enormous evil of slavery had to be eradicated, that does not mean he had not suggested the word “gradual” to Dundas. In any case, the compromise allowed the abolitionist cause an opportunity to register its first winning vote in Parliament.

Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice; he didn’t say it takes a right turn toward justice – because it seldom does. History needs to understand the difficulties faced by reformers who must confront political and social realities as they persist toward their ends, albeit, in the terms of Dundas’ amendment, gradually. Given our uncertainty surrounding what went on 230 years ago and the humility and respect we should always have for our forebears, who faced challenges easily the equal of our own, the status quo for Dundas St. has a lot to recommend itself.

Joe Martin is former director of business history at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.


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