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On 5 June, Mayor Muriel Bowser (District of Columbia) renamed a portion of Lafayette Square Black Lives Matter Plaza. The new plaza name is emblazoned in yellow paint that can be seen from outer space. Renaming the plaza is part of a growing movement that calls for statues, streets and parks named after historical figures that fall on the wrong side of the civil rights movement to be removed or renamed. Activists and town councils alike have moved quickly in England, Scotland, and the US to respond to requests for these name changes.
In Canada there is a petition to rename Dundas Street (Toronto), because the Scottish-Canadian citizen after whom the street was named was a strong proponent of slavery. (His monument in Edinburgh has already been removed.) That most white Canadians don’t know who Dundas was is not a sufficient reason to oppose the petition or leave the statue standing. Dundas’ statue symbolizes of a time when society condoned slavery. Anti-racism activists and academics suggest the street name is a symbol of the institutionalized racism that exists in Canada; oblivious to everyone except those who are oppressed.
Renaming streets and parks and erecting new statues does not disrespect our history. History books will continue to discuss Dundas, his accomplishments, and tell the history of slavery. But perhaps it is time to re-examine the criteria we use to determine who gets a statue or a park or street named in their honour. For example, the city of Ottawa guidelines for the naming of a public park that include (but are not limited to): a) someone who has worked to foster equality or reduce discrimination, b) someone who has an extraordinary public service record, and c) someone who has demonstrated excellence, courage or exceptional service to the city of Ottawa, province of Ontario, or Canada.
Could similar guidelines be applied to street names and public statues? In the same vein, is it appropriate to introduce periodic reviews of public features named after individuals to ensure that our public symbols continue to support the kind of inclusive, equal society we are working hard to build?
By Rhonda Moore
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