Duncan calls Dundas name change effort distracting and divisive

A National Portrait Gallery / Public domain portrait of Henry Dundas appears at left. An NVN file photo of Eric Duncan appears at right.

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

WINCHESTER — The MP for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry says he’s “frustrated” by the debate over changing the name of Dundas County because of its origin related to slavery.

The name-changing side issue is “distracting” from the core issue and “divisive” at a time when opponents of racism should be united, says MP Eric Duncan who was born and raised in Dundas County, and served as a councillor and mayor of North Dundas.

Despite his close association with what has become a controversial name, Duncan said he knew nothing of the connection to Lord Henry Dundas, accused of delaying passing of the bill to abolish slavery in the British Parliament 200 years ago, until the online name-change petition began circulating.

Anti-Dundas petition organizer Virginia Dipierro has insisted blotting out the name is “an urgent necessity, not a request. We can’t continue to move forward as a community with a name that denotes hatred and racism.”

Although not a slave owner, Dundas is charged with delaying abolition of slavery by 15 years in having the word “gradual” inserted in the bill. His motives are unclear, with his descendants claiming today he introduced the amendment because as a politician of “vision and integrity”, he understood it was the only way to eventually gain majority approval.

Toronto Mayor John Tory is facing the same dilemma as a working group reviews Dundas as the name of one of his city’s most prominent avenues. While it appears Dundas never set foot in Canada, his name spread like wildfire after friend John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, designated a settlement in South Western Ontario after him. The county was named in 1792.

Today, Dundas Streets pop up everywhere in Ontario, including in the Village of Cardinal in Grenville County. Attempting to rename all theses Dundases, if it ever gets to that, will open up a Pandora’s Box of issues, noted North Dundas Mayor Tony Fraser.

In the past, Duncan explained, there was never a reason to question the name and, in his mind, that’s where the issue should remain… in the past. A close observer of racial matters in the U.S., Canada, and other parts of the world, Duncan prefers to focus on the present and what can be done.

In recent weeks with COVID-19 restrictions limiting action, the MP has been consulting online with community leaders and plans to reach out to policing authorities about the level of racism and what can be done about it in SDG.

While his riding is home to considerably fewer representatives of visible minorities than the national average and racially-motivated incidents are rare, Duncan wants to make sure minorities feel welcome and respected.

Although changing the name of a municipality doesn’t come under federal jurisdiction, Duncan recommends strongly against it. He said his comments also apply to neighbouring Russell County, Township and Village where a name-change petition is also collecting hundreds of names.

A Henry Dundas peer, Peter Russell was Chief Administrator of Upper Canada and owned four slaves, two of them he offered for sale. Russell Township council is considering keeping its name but repurposing it by attaching it to a more worthy person with the first, middle, or last name Russell.

Noting there have been no statues or monuments erected in either county to Dundas or Russell, Duncan observed their pasts have been very low-profile. Elevating those profiles now does nothing to help the anti-racism cause.

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