Ontario Human Rights Commission seeks input on derogatory street, building names

The Ontario Human Rights Commission is seeking the public’s input as it develops a policy statement on the display of derogatory names, words and images.

The commission said it wants to address what it calls a “quickly evolving issue” that has increasingly seen Indigenous and racialized communities call for the removal of statues of historic figures “perceived as colonizers, slave owners or who advances racist policies.”

It also pointed to growing calls for officials to rename roads, buildings and other institutions named after historic figures, for the same reasons.

“What’s in a name? Often, everything,” Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire said in a statement.

“We continue to hear about communities disturbed by the name of a street, a sports team, a building or a monument.

DeGuire said the policy statement is being designed to help foster better understanding of the human rights issues involved, and to prompt communities to work together in a respectful way to overcome those issues.

Over the summer, some municipalities and post-secondary institutions announced they would review — and in some cases, change — the names used for streets, buildings and statues.

Toronto’s Ryerson University recently announced it would begin the process of changing its name following a push to examine the legacy of Egerton Ryerson in light of his role in Canada’s residential school system.

Toronto city council, meanwhile, has supported the renaming of Dundas Street, named after Henry Dundas, over the Scottish politician’s role in delaying the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. The change would also apply to other locations bearing his name, including transit stops and parks.

Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., also announced it would examine the legacy and impact of its namesake in a public history project to better understand its affiliation with the former prime minister.

The Township of Wilmot, in southwestern Ontario, voted this summer to scrap a project involving the statues of past prime ministers following a recommendation from an Indigenous advisory group.

The municipality had already removed a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald that was part of the project, acknowledging that unbalanced historical representation perpetuated feelings of oppression for some people.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission said Thursday that such concerns are not new, noting it was involved in a 2018 case that required the City of Mississauga to remove all Indigenous-themed mascots, names and images not related to Indigenous sports organizations from its sports facilities.

It said human rights law has found that images and words that degrade people because of their ancestry, race, or ethnic group may create a poisoned environment and violate the province’s human rights code.

The policy statement will focus on the legal obligations of organizations to prevent and address discrimination against Indigenous peoples, racialized communities and possibly other protected groups in situations involving the display of derogatory names and images, the commission said.

Those who wish to weigh in on the issue can complete an online survey or email the commission before Oct. 22.

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