'Canada was basically built on white supremacy': Why calls to rename streets, take down statues are finally being heard

It appears a sea change is underway across the country, as many Canadians are questioning how and why we choose to commemorate historical figures with controversial legacies.

Over the last year, conversations around renaming places and landmarks that bear names of these historical figures — and the erecting and dismantling of their statues — have occupied much of the discourse.

And while renaming institutions, streets and even townships has been an ongoing part of Canadian history, the intention behind it reflects where we are historically.

A reflection of the time

In a 2018 essay about the history of naming and renaming on Indigenous history site Shekon Neechie, scholar Brenda Macdougall writes:

“Canada is one long renaming project. Every location in this country had an Indigenous name in an Indigenous language, and colonial authorities, deeming those names irrelevant, renamed them in their own language and cultural perspective or appropriated and bastardized the original names in a manner that obliterated the Indigenous perspectives and sense of place.”

She adds that the trend to reverse the names placed upon regions by colonizers started in the Arctic in the 1980s and 1990s, when colonial names were replaced with Inuktitut toponymy. For example, Frobisher Bay became Iqaluit and Eskimo Point became Arviat.

A more recent example of this was in 2010, when the archipelago in British Columbia once known as Queen Charlotte Islands was renamed Haida Gwaii as part of a reconciliation agreement between the province and the Haida Nation.

Cecilia Morgan, professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the University of Toronto, says none of these decisions happen in a historical vacuum.

“There’s always an impetus for renaming or rethinking the kind of public commemoration we engage in,” she tells Yahoo Canada News.

“Whether it’s as a nation state or at provincial or local levels ... There’s always different historical forces that come into play that prompt that kind of thinking. Sometimes voices are heard more clearly than they were in the past.”

The move to rename is a direct reflection of a moment in time. For example, the town of Kitchener, Ont., was known as Berlin until the First World War. The original name’s associations with enemy forces prompted that change. That led to tension that locals of German descent encountered, with people questioning their loyalty and adherence to the Crown.

Whose voices are being heard?

Marcel Martel, a history professor at York University, says any time there is a commemoration or naming, it’s going to be divisive. And that means that some voices are going to be silenced.

“Those voices may take five, 10, 15, 20, 30 years to be heard,” he says. “Those voices might have been silenced but now those voices must be paid attention to.”

Toronto City Councillor Michael Thompson says renaming has been an issue in the city for a while, it just hasn't been addressed. There are currently a slew of institutions, monuments and even streets whose names are being reconsidered in Canada's largest city.

Earlier this month, the York Regional District School Board voted in favour of renaming Sir John A. Macdonald Public School as part of Indigenous reconciliation efforts. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, is considered to have played a major role in the country’s residential school system.

I don't think the city has kept a really good detailed registry or log of the information and I think that’s problematic.Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson

The Toronto District School Board is also considering whether to rename a downtown public school originally named in honour of Queen Victoria, after receiving requests from the school’s student council and a parent group.

In May, a school named after British parliamentarian Benjamin Vaughan, who enslaved Africans in Jamaica, was officially renamed after late Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh, who once lived in the area.

There are also calls to rename Ryerson University, which is named after Egerton Ryerson, who helped develop residential schools. In the fall, the school's journalism publications, the Ryerson Review of Journalism magazine and Ryersonian newspaper, will be called something else.

Arguably the largest and most expensive attempt in renaming came last week, when city council voted in favour of renaming Dundas Street, as well as the accompanying subway stations, in downtown Toronto. The name originally was meant to honour Henry Dundas, a Scottish politician who opposed the abolition of slavery. The decision is estimated to cost the city more than $6 million, but it’s one Councillor Thompson says is well worth it.

“We promote Toronto as a place for people to come from all over the world, to do business here," he says. “I think those considerations and opportunities to come to Toronto will far outweigh the money it will cost to change. The economic benefits of people coming here with a clear conscious of Toronto making the right decisions to reflect our values moving forward, that’s an attractive sales feature from an economic perspective.”

He adds that more research needs to be in place when it comes to future commemorations.

“I don't think the city has kept a really good detailed registry or log of the information and I think that’s problematic,” he says. “It’s something we’re going to have to address going forward.”

I don’t think a statue has ever inspired anyone to pick up a book and learn more about that person.Crystal Fraser

The work is ongoing

Crystal Fraser, an assistant professor of history and native studies at the University of Alberta, says statues and naming are a direct reflection of our values.

“There’s this consistent question that keeps coming up of ‘well, we can’t revise history, they can’t just be forgotten,’ and of course that’s never the case,” she says. “Archival spaces are open to the public. We have thousands of history books. I don’t think a statue has ever inspired anyone to pick up a book and learn more about that person.”

She says indigenous communities have been taking on this work for decades. It’s now coming to the collective consciousness as hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools are officially coming to light.

“In the context of the death of children at Indian residential schools, larger Canadian society is struggling to catch up with this work and quickly learn about it and understand it and grapple with this idea that the settler state of Canada was basically built on white supremacy.”