Council votes 3-2 to honour new “Russell,” dump slave owner as township namesake

An illustration depicting Peter Russell.

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

RUSSELL — The proposal to rebrand rather than rename Russell Township was passed by council Monday night — but not unanimously. Councillors Jamie Laurin and Andre Brisson opposed the motion, stating it was better to leave well enough alone rather than launch a process to pick another person named Russell as a new namesake.

But motion presenter Mayor Pierre Leroux, seconder Councillor Mike Tarnowski, and Councillor Cindy Saucier supported rebranding; in their minds, to leave the status quo in place would be to condone the behaviour of current namesake Peter Russell.

The process started with the discovery that Upper Canada administrator Peter Russell was a slave owner and slavery supporter two centuries ago. That led to an often testy online petition to change the name, something Mayor Pierre Leroux was never prepared to do because of cost and confusion.

Another complication was that any change would apply to three jurisdictions — the township, Police Village of Russell, and Russell County: ‘’An entirely new name would have been impossible to get cleared by United Counties of Prescott-Russell council,’’ said Leroux, current counties warden.

The no-cost initiative of rededicating the name to a worthy Russell better representing the community’s ideals seemed like the perfect solution. First floated last month, the mayor said it has been greeted with widespread support from residents, including visible minorities.

Also approved during Monday’s special meeting were creation of two committees, one to vet rebranding candidates, and the Community Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee; membership in the committees will be advertised, with the mayor to make recommendations to council.

Leroux doesn’t want to rush through the process. He sees it taking up to a year to settle on the best new namesake, possibly including a post-COVID-19 open house where residents get to look at the possibilities including their backgrounds and select one.

‘’People have pointed out there are skeletons in everyone’s closet and down the road a new namesake might not look so good. Well, we can go through the process again and pick somebody else. I see this as a community-building exercise and there’s no harm in repeating it every 10 years.’’

He called it an opportunity to bring the community together through education, awareness and spirit. In taking the decision it has, council should have satisfied critics because it has ‘’formally recognized the offensive nature of the current honourary namesake.’’

According to wording of the motion, the ideals of Peter Russell do not reflect the ideals of Russell residents who strive to be inclusive with a good heart making the community an ‘’incredible place to live.’’

In passing the motion, council recognized that hearing the name Peter Russell can be ‘’hurtful and disrespectful.’’ In replacing the namesake, the only criteria is that the person deserving of rededication bears first, last or middle name Russell.

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