What’s in a name? Sometimes racism!

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A column by Tom Van Dusen

There was always something a little unsatisfying, even unnerving about the name Russell… and it just wasn’t the fact it caused confusion by being applied simultaneously to a township, village and county.

Locally, it was meaningless. The name belonged to accountant Peter Russell, administrator of Upper Canada in the late 1700s, a functionary who didn’t shine in any particular way, with no connection that I’m aware of to the local jurisdictions that were unceremoniously downloaded his name.

Actually, Peter Russell stood out in one way: He was a slave-trader of note, a self-serving proponent of continuing slavery rather than abolishing it, one of Toronto’s most dedicated slave owners of the day.

Why would local residents want this man’s disturbing legacy attached to us? The answer is we wouldn’t then or now, making a discussion of the situation in an increasingly anti-racism world highly relevant.

The renaming Russell discussion has been launched on social media picked up by Russell Township council, which will look at a cost-effective remedy this Monday night. Although the cheapest option, Mayor Pierre Leroux’s proposal to rededicate the name to another prominent person named Russell may just not fill the bill.

As outlined in Wendell Stanley’s fine local history From Swamp and Shanty, Peter Russell came to Canada with John Graves Simcoe who appointed him to the senior administrative position before returning to England. When Simcoe’s successor as Lieutenant Governor arrived in 1799, Russell was bumped out; he died in Toronto in 1808.

Russell Township was originally known as Elmsley Township and Russell Village was officially named the much more suitable Duncanville in 1852 after founder William Duncan whose home on the banks of the Castor River I’m proud to say I once owned. I’m sad to say it was destroyed by fire after I had rented it out.

When Duncan opened the first post office, it was designated Russell Post Office in the Village of Duncanville. Confusion reigned, with the post office designation also being used as the village name, Russell and Duncanville Village becoming interchangeable until , in 1898, a bylaw was passed by Prescott-Russell County Council that the unincorporated Village of Russell become the Police Village of Russell.

After years of research in compiling his book, Wendell stated this about the Russell/Duncanville confusion: “I have been unable find any official records of a name change.”

So, other than that’s just the way it is, Russell residents should have no loyalty to a no-name which slipped in, wiping out the much more colourful, significant and non-controversial Duncanville. In the past, I’ve written columns advocating a return to the original – and possibly still official –name of the village, pointing out Peter Russell’s unsavory character and lack of significant accomplishment. In my mind, Duncanville remains a viable option for the village, a name to return to with pride.

And how about Castor Township/Canton de Castor which works equally well in two official languages instead of Russell Township? It’s a name which has been considered before in studies to increase the local profile for marketing purposes, an option I’ve always liked for its simplicity, bilingualism, and meaning relating as it does to the river that crosses the entire municipality.

As for renaming Russell County, I’ll leave that aside for the moment because it’s highly complicated due to its legal and administrative interconnection with Prescott County. But if we’re changing names because Russell doesn’t cut it and never did, the county needs a new one too.

As unlikely as it seems, we might be able to find a new Russell to hang our hats on. Otherwise, if we want to eradicate the name except in the annals of local history, we’ll have to be more creative and spend a few more bucks.

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