FIRST READING: Henry Dundas did nothing wrong (on slavery, anyway)

Toronto just cancelled an abolitionist over a fantasist lie that he could have stopped slavery sooner if he’d tried harder

Article content

First Reading is a daily newsletter keeping you posted on the travails of Canadian politicos, all curated by the National Post’s own Tristin Hopper. To get an early version sent directly to your inbox, sign up here.


Article content

This week, the City of Toronto announced that landmarks along one of its oldest and most prominent streets, Dundas Street, were being renamed in the service of “racial justice and equality.” First up is the city’s well-known Yonge-Dundas Square, which will now be known by the Ghanaian name of Sankofa Square. A full-fledged renaming of Dundas Street was put on pause, but may still be in the offing. 

Advertisement 2

Article content

The change comes at the tail end of a years-long cascade of renamings and statue removals targeting Canadian historical figures; Sir John A. Macdonald. Captain James Cook. John “Gassy Jack” Deighton. Matthew Begbie. Queen Victoria. 

But of all those, Dundas’s cancellation arguably makes the least sense yet. Sir John A. Macdonald – the prime target of official statue removals in recent years – does indeed have a rather shabby record when it comes to his treatment of Plains First Nations. When B.C. cities have moved to strike the name of Edgar Dewdney from city streets, they were targeting someone who was criticized in his own time for using famine to force untreatied First Nations onto reserve. Egerton Ryerson may not be the “architect” of the Indian Residential School system – but he did conceive the idea of industrial boarding schools in which Indigenous youth would be intentionally severed from cultural and family ties. 

Henry Dundas never travelled to British North America and likely spent very little of his 69 years ever thinking about it. He was an influential Scottish career politician whose name adorns the street purely because he happened to be British Home Secretary when it was surveyed in 1793.

Advertisement 3

Article content

But after 230 years, activists led an ultimately successful a push for the Dundas name to be excised from the 23-kilometre street. As Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow said in deliberations over the name change, Dundas’s actions in relation to the Atlantic slave trade were “horrific.”

Was Dundas a slaveholder? Did he profit from the slave trade? Did he use his influence to advance or exacerbate the business of slavery?

No; Dundas was a key figure in the push to abolish slavery across the British Empire. The reason activists want his name stripped from Dundas Street is because he didn’t do it fast enough.

Related Stories

This whole saga began with a 2020 petition signed by 15,000 people. Toronto was still subject to COVID lockdowns and the United States was being wracked by widescale riots in the wake of the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd.

Against this context, the petition demanded that Toronto dissociate itself from anyone who had “actively worked toward preserving systems of racial inequality and exploitation.”

Advertisement 4

Article content

It singled out Dundas as a figure who had “participated in obstructing the abolition of slavery in the British Empire” – alleging that he did it all to “preserve the profiteering of his friends in the slave trade.”

The petition was piggybacking off a similar anti-Dundas movement in the U.K. – which itself seems to have been inspired by Dundas’s portrayal as a villain in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, a fictionalized portrayal of the British anti-slavery movement.

Dundas was responsible for inserting the word “gradually” into an iconic 1792 Parliamentary motion calling for the end of the Atlantic slave trade. A legislated end to the trade wouldn’t come until 1807, followed by an 1833 bill mandating the total abolition of slavery across the British Empire. 

The accusation is that – if not for Dundas – the unamended motion would have passed and the British slave trade would have ended 15 years earlier.

But according to the 18th century historians who have been brought out of the woodwork by the Cancel Dundas movement, Henry Dundas was a man working within the political realities of a Britain that wasn’t yet altogether convinced that slavery was a bad thing. 

Advertisement 5

Article content

The year before Dundas’ “gradual” amendment secured passage for the motion, the House of Commons had rejected a similar motion for immediate abolition.

“Dundas’s amendment at least got an anti-slavery statement adopted — the first,” wrote Lynn McDonald, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, in August. McDonald added that, in any case, it was just a non-binding motion; any actual law wouldn’t have gotten past the House of Lords.

The parliamentary record from this time survives, and Dundas was open about the fact that he “entertained the same opinion” on slavery as the famed abolitionist William Wilberforce, but favoured a more practical means of stamping it out. 

“Allegations … that abolition would have been achieved sooner than 1807 without his opposition, are fundamentally mistaken,” reads one lengthy Dundas defence in the journal Scottish Affairs.

“Historical realities were much more nuanced and complex in the slave trade abolition debates of the 1790s and early 1800s than a focus on the role and significance of one politician suggests,” wrote the paper, adding that although Wilberforce opposed Dundas’ insertion of the word “gradually,” the iconic anti-slavery figure “later admitted that abolition had no chance of gaining approval in the House of Lords and that Dundas’s gradual insertion had no effect on the voting outcome.”

Advertisement 6

Article content

Meanwhile, the British abolition of slavery actually has some indirect ties to the road that bears Dundas’s name.

The road’s construction was overseen by John Graves Simcoe, the British Army general that Dundas had picked to be Lieutenant Governor of the colony of Upper Canada.

The same year he started building Dundas Street, Simcoe signed into law an act banning the importation of slaves to Upper Canada – and setting out a timeline for the emancipation of the colony’s existing slaves. It was the first anti-slavery legislation in the British Empire, and it was partially intended as a middle finger to the Americans’ first Fugitive Slave Act, passed that same year.

All of this is part of why the Dundas renaming has been more contentious than most. Dundas’s legacy has been defended by no less than three former Toronto mayors, who wrote in an August joint letter that the city was misrepresenting Dundas’s legislative record.

“It appears that Henry Dundas for whom the street is named, was a committed abolitionist who, when facing strong opposition and certain defeat, rather than give up his quest, advocated for interim measures that would ultimately lead to that result,” it stated.

“It seems he was doing the best he could under challenging circumstances at that time in history.”

The renaming push even inspired a Henry Dundas Committee of Ontario, a group that included distant Canadian descendants of Dundas himself. 

On Thursday, committee chair Jennifer Dundas wrote in a lengthy social media post that her 18th century ancestor had been subjected to a “lynching.”

In the final meeting that voted for the name change, she wrote that the Toronto mayor and council went as far as to accuse Dundas of kidnapping children for slave-breeding schemes – or even for slavery outrages that happened in French colonies long after his 1811 death. “It was la la land stuff,” she wrote.

As Jennifer Dundas concluded, the whole three-year process had a “familiar ring” to it: “Proclaim a wrongdoing, pick a convenient culprit, ignore evidence and due process, railroad the chosen culprit to a nearby hanging tree.”

She wrote, “when it’s all over claim that it was all done in the cause of justice and celebrate the grand victory over evil.”

Advertisement 7

Article content


The Liberals’ big contentious gun control bill passed third reading in the Senate on Thursday evening, meaning it will shortly be signed into law. This was the bill where the Liberals tried to quietly slip in a suite of 11th hour amendments that would have banned scores of firearms enjoying widespread usage as hunting rifles. In that particular case, it took sustained opposition from hunter’s groups, rural MPs and First Nations bodies to eventually prompt the Liberals to pull back. But the revised bill – known as Bill C-21 – is still a massive gun ban, most notably in that it bans the sale or transfer of handguns. This whole thing has been pursued as a public safety measure, but as Bill C-21 has wound its way through the legislative process, evidence keeps emerging that Canada’s rising rate of shootings is due almost entirely to guns smuggled in from the U.S. – a class of firearm that will obviously be untouched by this new bill.

Doug Ford
Beer in grocery stores may seem like a “no duh” proposal if you’re from Quebec, B.C., Europe, the United States or most of Central and South America. But it’s extremely controversial in Ontario for reasons that remain baffling to its neighbours to both the east and south. Above is a web video of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announcing the new change. A quick look at the video’s comments yields the fears that this will increase crime, plague highways with drunk drivers and lower life expectancy. Photo by Premier Doug Ford

This newsletter has occasionally delved into the reasons why Canada has some of the worst housing affordability on Planet Earth. In short, there’s a severe housing shortage, red tape is kneecapping our ability to build more, and sky-high immigration is outpacing whatever new homes we can add to the mix. Way down on the list of reasons is that it can take time to design a house sometimes. So naturally, the Trudeau government announced it is planning to produce a booklet of pre-approved housing designs. To be fair, the federal government did something very similar in the housing crunch that followed in the immediate wake of the Second World War, although that particular housing crisis wasn’t so much constrained by land unavailability or red tape issues in the same way as the current one.

Get all of these insights and more into your inbox by signing up for the First Reading newsletter here.

Our website is the place for the latest breaking news, exclusive scoops, longreads and provocative commentary. Please bookmark and sign up for our daily newsletter, Posted, here.

Article content