Changing the name of Russell Township because Peter Russell had slaves is not judicious.

Peter Russell died in 1808, but until the Slavery Abolition Act came into force on Aug. 1, 1834, slavery was not only legal but encouraged by London, because English colonies depended on slave labour for economic growth. People who enslaved Black persons included, among others, government and military officials, Loyalists, merchants, bishops, priests and nuns.

In what is now Toronto, the provincial secretary of Upper Canada, William Jarvis, owned six enslaved Black people, and he not only fought to keep his own slaves, but wanted slavery to be legally available to all white men in Upper Canada. His eldest son, Samuel, who gave his name to Jarvis Street in Toronto, settled down to a life of corruption, scandal and financial idiocy and was accused of stealing large sums of money from the government.

Six out of the nine original members of the upper house of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada were also slave owners. There was Peter Russell, but also James Baby, Alexander Grant Sr., Richard Duncan, Richard Cartwright and Robert Hamilton.

James McGill, member of the Assembly of Lower Canada and founder of McGill University, counted six enslaved Black persons as part of his property holdings. He lived around the same time as Peter Russell. If we have to change the name of Russell, will McGill University change too? And Jarvis Street in Toronto seems much more open to criticism than Russell.

Slavery was disgusting, but to be able to judge past events, we have to place them in context.

Roland Madou, Ottawa

Published in The Ottawa Citizen July 11, 2020