Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News
RUSSELL – Mayor Pierre Leroux has come up with a clever way to deal with the controversy that has erupted over the name of his municipality — Russell Township — which is also carried by Russell Village and Russell County: Keep the name but tie it to some other worthy person named Russell.
Critics with a connection to the community have pointed out — and the national news media has jumped on it — that the name originates with Peter Russell who in the late 1700s was administrator of Upper Canada, which became Ontario.
History has recorded Russell to be an advocate of slavery, a slave owner and trader; at a time when many of his peers were lobbying for the abolition of slavery, Russell fought for the status quo and the right to keep his own slaves.
“We are asking our representatives to change the name of Russell to something that reflects our values as a town, province and country,” says an online petition calling for a name change which on Friday was rapidly heading to its goal of 1,000 endorsements.
One of the chief critics has been Denis Agar who proudly describes Russell as his hometown.
Congratulating local residents for recently marching in support of Black Lives, Agar wondered on social media how they could keep using “that horrid man’s” name to refer to their home now that they know the truth.
Leroux told national media that he’s willing to discuss a name change, keeping in mind the financial impact of such a move. Later he issued a news release announcing that at this Monday’s council meeting he’ll introduce a motion confirming that neither township government nor local residents want to be associated with Peter Russell.
Leroux is proposing to re-dedicate the Russell designation through creation of a community-based committee assigned to review submissions as to why various candidates might be worthy of becoming the municipality’s new namesake: “The only criteria will be that whoever is being nominated must have the first or last name Russell.”
The community, the mayor elaborated, will be tasked with choosing who best represents its interests.
“Through cooperation, investigation and dialogue, we will determine which Russell best defines us. If approved by council, this endeavour acknowledges our past, confirms the amazing community we live in today, and becomes an example for our future.”
Despite the somewhat whimsical approach to dealing with the issue, Leroux left no doubt in the release he sees it as a serious one. Recent events around the world, he said, have highlighted the issues of racism and discrimination, bringing to the forefront the need for “conversations, understanding and reflection now more than ever.”
Although far from “these negatives,” Russell can’t hide from the past, the mayor emphasized: “Peter Russell of 200 years ago by no means embodies the Russell of today, or even the Russell of the past. However, we can’t deny the current origin of our name.”
One social media commentator has already broken from the mayor’s formula by suggesting the name be changed to “Pitreville” in honour of the late Butterfly Boy Jonathan Pitre.