Bret Snider October’21

History Is History ~ Opinion

By Bret Snider

At this point in time our municipal counsel has decided to change the name of Dundas Street. I believe, we need to think about that. Revisionist advocates can’t change history – it is what it is and applying today’s standards and norms won’t change it.

When my children were young, I made it a point of taking them around to various sites in the city that explained our past – both our family and collective history. Fort York, our family history that spans eight generations in Toronto, Loyalist houses, the museum… things like that. At one point, my youngest daughter, Morgan, said “Who cares about history – its irrelevant.”

I looked at her and the first thing that came to mind was George Orwell’s famous novel “1984” in which he characterized an authoritarian government that wanted to wipe out history and impose their view of perfection. But she wouldn’t have understood that at the time so I said, “It puts things in context, explains how we got here and if we don’t understand it then we could make the same mistakes.”

People are defacing statues of Sir John A. MacDonald and now it’s Henry Dundas’s turn. Were these people perfect by today’s standards, hundreds of years later? No. I know I’m not perfect and I’ve never met anyone who is. But they lived in different times but made significant and lasting contributions. That should be our litmus test not revisionism.

Sir John A. MacDonald, our first Prime Minister, often under the banner of the Liberal Conservative Party, negotiated and met with fellow politicians in Charlottetown, Quebec and with politicians in London England, to form the Dominion of Canada and link the British colonies of Upper Canada (Ontario), Lower Canada (Quebec), and two of the Maritime colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In so doing he worked with George Etienne Cartier, the Premiere of Canada East to establish an English / French partnership.

Those negotiations received Royal Assent with the approval of Queen Victoria on March 29, 1867, that resulted in the British North America Act, now much of the foundation of our constitution. It ushered in Responsible Government and laid the foundation which evolved into our multicultural and inclusive country. Later the Dominion was joined by British Columbia (1871) and PEI (1873).

During the same period (1868) the Rupert’s Land Act was passed which he supported. The massive territory was transferred to Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company, an area that now consists of, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nunavut, northern Ontario, and northern Quebec. Then initiated the construction of a railway to tie the new Country together.

Henry Dundas was a prominent British parliamentarian from Scotland in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. He was known as King Harry the Ninth when Scotland had no king. He was a career politician, a Viscount, and at various times, Home Secretary, Treasurer of the Admiralty, Secretary of War and President of the East India Company. Most of all he was a pragmatist.

He led the legal team representing Joseph Knight, a Jamaican slave taken to Scotland. The landmark case in 1776 of Knight vs Wedderburn led the Scottish Supreme Court to rule that no person could be enslaved on Scottish soil.

When the question of the abolition of slavery came up in the British House of Commons in 1791, introduced by abolitionist, William Wilberforce, it was defeated. A second attempt was made again in 1792 (defeated, 163 opposed, 88 in favour). He was faced with a Bill he felt would not pass if introduced again. And that if done immediately could force the slave trade underground much like we have today with international human trafficking.

He then submitted a compromise by adding the word “Gradual” to Wilberforce’s Bill. His compromise Bill passed the House of Commons (230 in favour, 85 opposed). Several years later King George III signed a law abolishing slavery in the British Empire (then approximately a fifth of the world) that finally ended in 1807.

The cost to rename, the 23 kilometre street will be 6 million dollars – signs, transit stops, parks, etc.. However, this does not include the economic impact it will have on thousands of businesses. In some cases, changing company names, legal costs, and marketing materials. Will taxpayers pay for that as well?

My point is the same one I made to my daughter. We must learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes. Removing or defacing monuments to those who have shaped our world does not add to our understanding it diminishes it.