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MacDonald Laurier Institute

Toronto’s “Sankofa Square” – The terrible folly and historic injustice of erasing the legacy of abolitionist Henry Dundas


13 minute read

From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Lynn McDonald

Canadians’ keenness to repent for the misdeeds of the past has its merits, but has also led to gross errors of judgment.

Mayor Olivia Chow and Toronto City Council went even more over-the-top in their choice of “Sankofa Square” for Yonge-Dundas Square. Other renamings in the city have either substituted a banal name, like substituting Toronto Metropolitan University for Ryerson University, or, more frequently, selected an Indigenous name as a substitute for “colonizer” monikers. The Ghanaian word “Sankofa,” however, was selected for its meaning: “learning from the past.” But what can we learn about slavery in Ghana?

Slavery was rife both throughout Africa and much of the world in centuries past. Under its previous name, the Gold Coast, Ghana was a prime place for the sale of slaves to European slave traders. As well, its version of slavery included the horrible practice of executing the slaves of a chieftain who died, so that they could serve him in the afterlife.

In 1847, a Methodist missionary, the Rev. George Chapman, sent an account of this practice from his mission post in Kumasi, the second-largest city in Ghana. In an article in the Toronto Christian Guardian titled “Horrid Treatment of Infants in Ashanti,” Chapman explained that both men and women slaves, of all ages, were executed. When a woman slave with a nursing infant was beheaded, her baby fell to the ground “with her headless body.” Such an infant was regarded as an “abomination.” It gets worse:

“The body of the mother may remain in the street all day exposed to the gaze of every passer-by, and by her side may remain her helpless, living infant exposed to, not only the heedless foot of the multitude, but suffering intensely from the direct rays of a tropical sun. Seldom does any eye pity; no one would ever think of taking away that child and thus saving its life—it remains in the street until evening, and then, as the individual whose business is to drag away the bodies of these victims, takes away the mother; he may at the same time take away the child, not to pity and save it, but to cast both mother and child into the cell where these wretched victims are thrown, and they both remain to putrify [sic] or to be devoured by swine or carnivorous birds.”

In the same article, Chapman described being alerted to the beheading of a female slave in a nearby village. The dead mother’s baby, still alive, was left by her side. Starving, it had crawled up to his mother’s body to lick the blood from her bleeding neck. The missionary hastened to the execution site to try to save it, but he was too late: a bystander saw Chapman coming and prevented rescue by standing on the infant’s neck to kill it.

Ghana abolished slavery only in 1874, roughly 100 years after it was abolished, through court cases, in 1772 in England, and in 1778 in Scotland. For Scotland, it was Henry Dundas, as a lawyer, who won over the Scottish law lords on the appeal case he headed of an escaped enslaved man, Joseph Knight. They not only freed him, by a solid 8-4 majority, but ruled that there could be no slavery in Scotland, and thus freed all other slaves in the country.

This was Henry Dundas’s first achievement as an abolitionist.

Ontario, thanks to John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant-governor, has the merit of being the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to abolish slavery, albeit gradually, in 1793, about 80 years before Ghana got around to it. Simcoe, it should be noted, was an appointee of Henry Dundas, a fellow abolitionist.

Yet Mayor Chow called the renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square “beautiful,” and even claimed that she could not “think of a better a name for a gathering place at the heart of our city” than Sankofa Square. To Chow, Henry Dundas’s actions were no less than “horrific.”

Dundas and Ryerson: the Christian Guardian connection

Rev. Chapman sent his story to the Christian Guardian, a weekly Methodist magazine based in Toronto, for which Egerton Ryerson was the founding editor. He was no longer the editor when this story appeared, but he had himself written on abolition in the British Empire and the United States. Ryerson, notably, was a visitor in the British House of Commons on May 14, 1833, for the last debate and adoption of the law to abolish slavery in the British Empire. He gave a superb report on it in the Christian Guardian titled “House of Commons: Colonial Slavery.”

Ryerson also happened to be in Boston, en route to England in 1850, when the United States Congress passed the draconian Fugitive Slave Act. This required the return of slaves caught in free states, where they previously would have been safe. That law meant that escaped slaves from the American South would have to make it to Ontario to be safe, which sparked the development of the “Underground Railroad.” In a report written for the Christian Guardian, Ryerson condemned the law as an attempt to “trample under foot” the “rights of man,” adding that it was “incredible to me” that slavery was being championed in Boston, “the cradle of liberty.”

The abolition of slavery in Africa

The British law of 1833 that abolished slavery in the “British colonies” effectively meant in the West Indies; it also included Canada, which by comparison, had very few slaves. It would take decades more for slavery in Africa itself to be abolished, as well as the slave trade on the continent’s east coast. Recall journalist Henry Stanley’s “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” on finding missionary doctor David Livingstone alive, but ill, on the coast of Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Livingstone had himself witnessed the beheading of 400 local slaves by slave traders from Zanzibar.

Given Ghana’s significant role in the transatlantic slave trade, and Dundas’s clear opposition to slavery, it makes little sense to strike Dundas’s name off of Toronto’s most famous public square. But so far, Chow is sticking by her assertion that Dundas’s legacy with regards to slavery is “horrific.”

The inconvenient truths about slavery and its abolition

Canadians, and especially Torontonians, are keen to repent of the misdeeds of the past, both against Indigenous people and enslaved Africans. This new humility has its merits, but has also led to gross errors of judgment, especially false accusations against supposed “colonizers” or “colonialists.” Ryerson himself was accused of responsibility for the “colonialist” past, although he himself was born in Ontario, on a farm north of Lake Erie. Neglected is the documented fact that Indigenous societies themselves were slave societies. The losers of wars between Indigenous societies could be killed, mutilated, and/or enslaved, and even sold as slaves. Those more fortunate were adopted by the conquering group, in other words, assimilated – another no-no in today’s world.

No Indigenous society is known to have actually abolished slavery. Indeed, Indigenous slaves were among those freed by the abolition laws of Britain and Upper Canada.

Nor did any African state ever abolish slavery or the slave trade of its own accord. It took decades of pressure from Great Britain, and sometimes bribes from it, to achieve its abolition. Again, Dundas had some understanding of the key role of African leaders in slavery and the slave trade. As he stated in 1792 in the House of Commons when defending his amendment to William Wilberforce’s motion for abolition of the slave trade, to make it “gradual”:

“If once a Prince of an enlightened character should rise up in that hemisphere, his first act would be to make the means of carrying off all slaves from thence impracticable. What reason had they to suppose that the light of Heaven would never descend upon the continent of Africa? From that moment there must be an end of African trade. The first system of improvement, the first idea of happiness that would arise in that continent, would bring with it the downfall of the African trade, and that in a more effectual way than is done by regulations of this country.”

Dundas had a much better understanding of the complications of abolishing slavery and the slave trade than other abolitionists, certainly more than Wilberforce, the Parliamentary abolition leader. But even Dundas had no idea that it would take nearly a century to get rid of it everywhere, and that until it was abolished everywhere, with thorough enforcement measures as well as the adoption of laws, it would remain in force, and many would be its miserable victims.

A better name than “Sankofa Square”

There is good reason not to go back to “Yonge-Dundas” Square, for Sir George Yonge, when governor of Cape Colony, South Africa, made money on the slave trade. Yet neither Mayor Chow, nor Toronto’s previous mayor, John Tory, ever condemned him. This is not to suggest renaming Yonge Street, for too much Ontario history has passed along it. The Rebels of 1837 marched down Yonge Street from Eglinton Street, only to be stopped at Maitland Street. Egerton Ryerson, in his first post as a Methodist minister, had his start as an itinerant preacher riding the “Yonge Street Circuit.”

Reasonable titles would be “Dundas Square,” or, better, “Slavery Abolition Square.” “Ryerson Square” would suit, but only when the anti-Ryerson people come to realize that they fell for false accusations. The square is close to where he developed such great educational reforms as free schools for all, teacher training, and free public libraries, initially for Ontario, in time adopted throughout the country.

Lynn McDonald, CM, Ph.D., is a former Member of Parliament, a professor emerita of University of Guelph, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

MacDonald Laurier Institute

Anti-Jewish campus protests reveal ugly double standard when it comes to policing “free speech”

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From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Kelsie Walker for Inside Policy

Despite encampments trespassing on private property, and thus being, by all definitions, illegal, they’ve seen practically no disciplinary action.

Following widespread pro-Palestinian protest encampments popping up on American campuses, there was an influx of copycat encampments across major Canadian university campuses, including at the University of Toronto, McGill University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Calgary, the University of Ottawa, and Western University, among others. These encampments are demanding that universities divest from entities associated with Israel, accusing them of supporting apartheid and being complicit in genocide. The protests, intended to express solidarity with Palestinians but also rife with antisemitism and calls for violence against Jews, have sparked intense debates about the limits of free speech and the legal boundaries of protests on campuses.

What began as a story of peaceful activism has quickly turned into lawmakers, universities, and the police selectively enforcing the law on partisan lines, displaying both hypocrisy and inaction when it comes to handling protests associated with the left.

A new poll from the Angus Reid Institute found that two-thirds of Canadians (64 per cent) say the police give preferential treatment to certain groups when dealing with protests. Canadians of all political affiliations largely feel that police response and engagement at protests is not applied consistently, with three-in-five past Conservative (68 percent), Liberal (60 percent), and NDP (73 percent) voters saying so. While they differ on the question of who receives preference, given the recent events at Canadian universities, it is undeniable that left-leaning causes, and more specifically, pro-Palestinian protests, are given unfair leeway in comparison to causes deemed to be right-leaning.

While some have tried to frame the campus encampments as an issue of free speech, in many cases, the protesters are breaking clearly defined and communicated laws. Students are certainly free to protest. However, they must also comply with university policies and Canadian laws. Free speech allows individuals to express their opinions, even controversial or unpopular ones. However, when the expression of an opinion crosses into illegal activity, such as vandalism, trespassing, or the incitement of violence, it is no longer protected under the banner of free speech. Yet, pro-Palestinian protestors are demanding that their protests be held above the law, and such demands are being met.

Despite encampments trespassing on private property, and thus being, by all definitions, illegal, they’ve seen practically no disciplinary action. The majority of Canadian universities are either placating protestors’ demands by offering a list of concessions, or, they are simply letting protests proceed practically unchecked. Police did recently disperse the encampment at McGill University on June 6 – but only after protesters there escalated the situation by illegally occupying an administration building. While most protestors have good intentions, illegal and alarming activity is frequently occurring in protest sites. Encampments have, at times, seen physical conflicts with counter-protesters, the presence of anti-Canadian and anti-police slogans, the refusal of numerous orders to leave, have issued calls to incite violence, and in one instance, have even displayed shocking imagery depicting the lynching of Jews.

Consider McGill’s “peaceful” protest. Launched in late April, it quickly turned into a hotbed of intolerance. Protestors rejected the university’s offer of concessions (despite the offer being similar to those that have led to conflict resolution at other universities) and sent masked individuals to follow and harass senior administrators at their homes and offices. The encampment displayed profane graffiti, and even featured a hanging effigy of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  donning a striped outfit that resembled the uniforms that Jews wore in concentration camps during the Second World War. Are these truly displays of free speech, or something far more sinister?

Many of the encampments are demonstrating a striking intolerance to differing opinions and an unwillingness to reach a compromise with universities, with many protestors refusing to leave until all their demands are met. If the situation was reversed, would a pro-Israeli encampment be met with the same tolerance?

Well, the University of Toronto clearly says no. Recently, a pro-Israel encampment, created in counter-protest to the pro-Palestinian encampment on campus, was removed by campus security within minutes of being established. The justification? Unlike the fully fenced-in and untouchable “Little Gaza” that has existed and grown steadily on the campus for over a month, the counter-protest was simply small enough to remove. So, it turns out, universities are in fact able to remove encampments, but only when they are on the wrong ideological side (or, in this case, the “right” side). This double standard is alarming. Why are universities and the police so afraid to stand up to left-wing protests when they blatantly break the law? If encouraging “free speech” is the justification, then that very speech cannot be encouraged selectively.

While encampments at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta have been disbanded by police, most Canadian universities are not taking any action against illegal encampments. Indeed, some universities have reassured protesters that there will be no punitive actions taken towards them. The University of Toronto, the same university that was so quick to remove pro-Israeli protestors, even began its convocation ceremonies to the backdrop of a large pro-Palestinian encampment.

To be clear, I am not advocating for the forced end of protests. However, the inconsistent application of the law is troubling. This is part of a much wider issue in Canadian society, where there is a clear double standard on this issue. Just look at how the federal government reacted to the “Freedom Convoy” that gridlocked Ottawa in January 2022. In response to the anti-vaccine-mandate protest, the Trudeau government invoked the Emergencies Act and forcibly brought it to an end. Some Freedom Convoy organizers were arrested and their bank accounts frozen. A federal court ruling later declared the use of the Emergencies Act “unreasonable” and a violation of the protesters’ Charter rights.

Ironically, the same people who applauded the crackdown on the Freedom Convoy protesters are crying foul at the very thought of the police disbanding left-wing protest encampments on university campuses. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”

While free speech is protected, it is not without limits. And it certainly shouldn’t be used as a phony justification for inaction, especially pro-Palestinian encampments make other students and staff feel unsafe on campus. The mobs are especially concerning for Jewish students, faculty, and staff who have suffered instances of anti-Semitic rhetoric, harassment, and exclusion on campus. In the face of such blatant anti-Jewish hate, how can they feel safe, respected, and valued by their institutions?

Protests are often intended to create discomfort; however, universities are sitting by idling while atmospheres of hatred and racism are being strengthened with each passing day. It is so severe that some Jewish students in the United States are taking legal action against their universities, under the claims that the institutions are failing to protect them from discrimination and harassment. If such hostility is allowed to continue unchecked, it is only a matter of time until legal battles emerge on Canadian campuses too. Universities are legally and ethically obligated to ensure that all students feel secure and respected, not allow a select few to run rampant all over university rules. There must be a principled, consistent approach to free speech and legal enforcement – one that transcends political affiliations and ensures that the rights and responsibilities of all citizens are respected equally.

Kelsie Walker is a project manager at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute where she primarily assists with the Defending the Marketplace of Ideas project.

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The Trudeau government’s latest assault on transparency is buried in Bill C-69

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From the Macdonald Laurier Institute

By Aaron Wudrick for Inside Policy

The new powers granted to the minister of health under Bill C-69 are considerable. For example, they allow the minister to unilaterally make decisions regarding drug approvals and food safety regulations, effectively pulling products off the shelves of stores without the typical procedural safeguards. This concentration of power in the hands of the minister circumvents much-needed scrutiny and risks politicizing health decisions.

As the Trudeau government scrambles to pass its spring 2024 budget measures through Parliament before the summer recess, most of the media’s focus has centred on the budget’s headline measure, the increase in the capital gains inclusion rate. Unusually, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland chose not to include that change in its main budget bill, saying she would instead soon introduce those measures in a separate bill.

Meanwhile, the remainder of the budget measures are contained in Bill C-69, an omnibus bill that has attracted little media attention. That is a shame, as it contains provisions that warrant closer scrutiny, particularly the proposed changes to the Food and Drug Act. These amendments grant the minister of health sweeping powers, exacerbating the Trudeau government’s longstanding habit of undermining proper procedural channels when it finds them to be inconvenient.

The new powers granted to the minister of health under Bill C-69 are considerable. For example, they allow the minister to unilaterally make decisions regarding drug approvals and food safety regulations, effectively pulling products off the shelves of stores without the typical procedural safeguards. This concentration of power in the hands of the minister circumvents much-needed scrutiny and risks politicizing health decisions. It is not hard to see how such authority could easily lead to arbitrary or politically motivated actions, further diminishing public trust in a health system battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Minister Mark Holland defends these new powers by arguing that they are necessary for protecting public health swiftly and effectively and suggests that only a “dishonest” minister would misuse such powers. He fails to mention that governance should not rely solely on the personal integrity of individual ministers but on robust, transparent processes that ensure accountability. It is concerning that Holland advocates bypassing established departmental procedures, which raises questions about the motivations behind these proposed changes.

A more appropriate regulatory approach would trust independent agencies, including Health Canada, to oversee the safety of health products. Establishing clear guidelines and procedures for evaluating and removing unsafe products would ensure consistency, fairness, and transparency in decision-making processes.

Unfortunately, this approach contrasts sharply with the Trudeau government’s preference for consolidating power and limiting oversight.

For instance, the Trudeau government has been criticized for its use of secret orders-in-council, which bypass public scrutiny and reduce transparency. These orders often contain sensitive decisions that the government simply prefers to keep out of the public eye.

The government has also allowed the federal access to information system to atrophy, with frequent delays and heavily redacted documents further undermining the principle of open government.

In 2017, the Trudeau government introduced changes that critics argued would limit the independence and effectiveness of the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO). These amendments allowed the government to control the PBO’s work plan and staffing, potentially reducing its ability to hold the government accountable. More recently, the government cut the budget of the Information Commissioner’s office, undermining the capacity of an already overwhelmed independent officer of Parliament to hold the government to account, with the commissioner herself noting that “this reduction in my budget will spell long delays for complainants who are seeking information from government institutions.”

Further examples of this troubling trend include the government’s proposal in the early days of the  COVID-19 pandemic that sought to grant the government extraordinary powers to tax and spend unilaterally – without parliamentary approval – for almost two years. Later in the pandemic, the government faced significant criticism from Auditor General Karen Hogan for the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the allocation and spending of tens of billions in relief funds: “I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” Hogan said in 2022.

Taken together, a clear pattern emerges of a government that regularly seeks to undermine transparency, limit oversight, and concentrate power within the executive branch, and Bill C-69 is just the latest attempt.

The government should back off and drop these proposed new unilateral ministerial powers. Strong regulatory oversight, coupled with transparency and accountability, won’t impair the government’s ability to regulate health products – all while safeguarding democratic principles and public trust.

Aaron Wudrick is the Director of the Domestic Policy Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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