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le Jeudi 18 juin 2020 14:44 Autres - Others

Petition to free Russell Township of namesake slavery link

Russell county, Russell Township and Russell village were named in honour of Peter Russell, a slave owner who opposed the abolition of slavery. — screen extract from Government of Ontario archives
Russell county, Russell Township and Russell village were named in honour of Peter Russell, a slave owner who opposed the abolition of slavery.
screen extract from Government of Ontario archives
In the wake of a recent weekend peaceful march in Russell Township to support the Black Lives Matter movement, there is another lobby effort in place to free the municipality from its namesake and his link to slavery.

Russell Township is named after Peter Russell, a former provincial administrator during the late 1700s in the early days of the newly created Province of Ontario. Russell owned slaves and during his time in government fought against efforts to outlaw slavery in Ontario. That historic link, along with an online petition calling on the municipality to change its name and reject its connection with Peter Russell, has some members of council thinking that the township needs a new namesake.

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“In the past few weeks, events around the world have highlighted the issues of racism and discrimination,” state Mayor Pierre Leroux, on his municipal Facebook page. “It has brought to the forefront, the need for conversations, understanding and reflection now more than ever.

“Peter Russell of 200 years ago by no means embodies the Russell of today, or even the Russell of the past. However, we cannot deny the current origin of the name.”

Mayor Leroux, with support from Councillor Mike Tarnowski, planned to introduce a motion at the June 15 council teleconference session. The motion stated that the township and its residents do not want to be associated with Peter Russell, and to find a new namesake to rededicate the municipality’s name.

During a later phone interview, Mayor Leroux that an outright name change for the municipality could prove expensive in terms of all the legal costs for the municipality, many local businesses, and every resident. Those costs could range from the legal expenses of the municipality to have the change registered with every provincial and federal department for mapping and other document changes, to the postal address, driver’s licence, birth certificates, passport, provincial health cards, bank account records, and all the other personal identification requirements for individual residents.

“And what happens to all the local businesses and (service) organizations which, by default, are named after this town?” said Mayor Leroux. “There are all sorts of (legal and financial) implications.”

Another solution

Mayor Leroux also noted having Peter Russell end up as the municipality’s namesake was a bureaucratic mistake. The actual name of the township was supposed to be Elmsley, who was a political rival of Russell at the time.

“The (place) names were switched by accident,” said Mayor Leroux, adding that the township itself is not the sole municipal entity that would or might have to make a name change. The Village of Russell and the county of Russell are also both named after Peter Russell.

The mayor has an alternative solution to the situation. He proposes creation of a community-based committee to collect and review submissions from township residents about someone who they think is worthy to be the municipality’s new namesake. The one condition is that the person proposed must have Russell as either a first and last name.

“It would be a very community-engaged process,” Mayor Leroux said. “I don’t want to change our name, I want it to highlight our history, and to demonstrate to generations to come what this municipality did to show its true values.”