By Kareem Mekla

What’s in a name? Beyond being a mere sequence of letters, a name can be a type of vessel carrying tales of history, culture, and lasting legacies. A name is a cornerstone upon which cultural identities are built, and it can be a mirror in which values are reflected. Toronto’s recent decision to rename Yonge-Dundas Square begs the question, “What’s in a name?” into focus and unravels a narrative that spans centuries. Sometimes, the square is where the city sees the most light for months on end; it’s where Toronto’s signature greyness is softened by a burst of life and light. Now furnished with the name of Henry Dundas, a complex and controversial figure, this public space will soon bear the title of Sankofa Square. This change, however, isn’t merely about signage; with it come declarations and reclamations of narratives, as well as oppositional tugs-of-war calling for historical interpretation to be put in context.

On December 14, 2023, Toronto’s City Council approved the new name for Yonge-Dundas Square–a decision at leas three and a half years in the making. In 2020, Andrew Lochhead brought Dundas’ legacy into question, specifically the role the 18th-century politician played in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With a major street, an iconic public square, a library, and two TTC subway stations bearing his name, a petition to rename Dundas St. was presented to City Council, and a vote determined that the name had to go. Yonge-Dundas Square is the first of these five Dundas-named civic properties to be renamed, and as with many such initiatives, “Sankofa” has been met with both support and backlash.

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 prompted worldwide protests. In the midst of this turmoil, 45-year-old Lochhead reflected on Dundas’ role in the eventual abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and his memorialization throughout the city. On June 8, 2020, he launched an online petition to rename Dundas St. It quickly gained traction, and Councillor Michael Layton presented it to City Council with nearly 14,000 signatures three weeks later on June 29. “The petition was able to take something that we hadn’t really thought of and make it matter … It was able to connect this local place to a much larger global and interconnected present,” says Lochhead. The petition has garnered around 14,800 signatures, but this number does little justice to the magnitude of its real-world impact.

An artist, cultural worker and PhD student, Lochhead has been involved with the museum and heritage industry for over 20 years. His work deals with urban environment and its relationship to memory, history, and social justice. This is why he is passionate about renaming Yonge-Dundas Square. He studies at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU), where his research focuses on the role of creative practices in challenging colonial narratives. In 2020, he was reading about protests in Bristol, UK, where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into the city’s harbour, from where his slave ships used to depart. He had also learned about a campaign for a plaque to be added to Melleville Monument in Edinburgh, describing the role that Henry Dundas is believed to have played in prolonging the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This ultimately led Lochhead to launch the petition that compelled Toronto to scrap the Dundas name.

Who was Henry Dundas, anyways?

Henry Dundas, the 1st Viscount Melville, was a Scottish lawyer and politician born in 1742. He held various ministerial positions under British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, starting as Home Secretary in 1791. That same year, abolitionist William Wilberforce sponsored a parliamentary motion calling for the immediate abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The motion was defeated with a near-two-thirds vote in opposition.

In 1792, Dundas presented to Parliament a petition calling for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With this petition, he proposed an amendment to Wilberforce’s motion that would facilitate the gradual abolition of slavery, instead of an immediate ban. This gradual approach involved the continued transport of slaves for years to follow, who would then be able to reproduce and sustain the Caribbean slave population and end the need to bring more slaves from Africa. The British House of Commons passed this motion with a 230-85 vote in favour, and the slave trade came to a complete stop in 1809.

Fast-Forward 211 Years

“They’re having a conversation in Edinburgh about a 150-foot monument. We have a 23-kilometre long one here in Toronto,” says Lochhead, referring to Dundas St. His goal was to use the petition to connect Toronto’s and Edinburgh’s campaigns and conversation around the commemoration of controversial figures. This is because Lochhead was angry. He was upset about George Floyd’s death. In this moment of indignation, he wanted to share his knowledge about the campaign in Edinburgh and Dundas. And so the petition was launched. 

Toronto is Done with Dundas

“I didn’t certainly have the idea that [the petition] would go literally viral…nor could I have imagined the real-world impacts of this call,” says Lochhead. 

In July 2021, City Council voted in favour of a motion tabled by Councillor Chris Moise to rename Dundas St., Dundas and Dundas West stations, the Jane-Dundas Public Library and Yonge-Dundas Square. The City Manager received direction from Mayor John Tory to create a Community Advisory Committee comprised of a variety of representatives. This included members of the Black community, Indigenous communities, and representatives of the businesses that will be affected by the renaming. Yonge-Dundas Square is the only civic property to be rebranded so far, while new names are still being decided for the other sites. Lochhead views Sankofa Square as a counter-monument to Dundas and Yonge streets, both named after individuals with legacies tied to slavery. “It sustains a conversation about what needs to be done,” he says, speaking about the square’s new name.


A mature bird stands at a point. In time and in space, its feet are grounded and forward-pointing. The feathered creature turns its head backwards, intentionally using its beak to reach for an egg. What used to be hindsight is now no longer. This egg, this vessel of life, bears the promise of new beginnings. Retrieved from the past, the egg represents a chance for people to learn and educate themselves. This is Sankofa, which refers to the act of reclaiming the past in order to build a better future, visualized by a distinct Adinkra symbol. This symbol was created by Ghana’s Bono people, and later adopted by the Asante people. The loose translation of Sankofa is “to go back and get.” 

Joseph Mensah, who has a PhD in geography, is a Ghanaian professor of African development and ethno-racial identity at York University. “There is this generalization that monuments have a lot of political messages,” he says, “That is the sentiment.” Prof. Mensah believes that the Yonge-Dundas Square rebrand to Sankofa is a good idea. 

“For Black people, it makes them feel a sense of belonging and solidarity, with the elevation of Ghanaian and African culture,” he says.

Illustration of the Sankofa bird turning its head to retrieve an egg.

The mythical Sankofa bird. Illustration by tatadonets via Adobe Stock.

Prof. Mensah understands that this name change, whether for historical interpretation or financial reasons, cannot please everybody. In light of this, he iterates that, “it’s very difficult to argue and criticize without bringing alternatives. If somebody doesn’t like Sankofa, regardless of its merits, what are you going to replace it with?” 

This is a question that has dominated municipal discourse ever since the new name was announced in December. Both Yonge-Dundas Board chair Mike Fentin and vice-chair Jan Mollenhauer resigned shortly after the announcement despite expressing support for the decision. A Global News report states that they disapproved of the process, citing “concerns around governance along with lack of public and board consultation by the City.” 

The three-year gap between the decision to rename and the product of said decision has given time for the people of Toronto to make their opinions known, though no formal civic engagement opportunity has been facilitated by the city. Lochhead suggests that public consultation on such a matter can be weaponized as a platform for the propagation of racism and racist sentiments.

The Fight for Dundas

This push to erase all things Dundas has not been universally praised. Having lived in Toronto his whole life, Daniel Tate wrote his undergraduate thesis on Yonge-Dundas Square. He holds a degree in political science and urban planning from York University.

On December 16, 2023, Tate launched a petition on titled “STOP the Renaming of Dundas in Toronto.” This petition contests the renaming on several fronts: historical interpretation of Henry Dundas’ ties to abolition, the choice of Sankofa, the integrity of the process, and the associated costs. Having amassed more than 28,000 signatures, Tate’s petition has received nearly double the support of Lochhead’s. 

“This is a public taxpayer-funded civic asset. You would think that the right thing to do…would be to have a robust, transparent renaming exercise across all walks of life, where everybody could contribute ideas,” he says. 

Amid this battle of the petitions, Tate emphasizes that Dundas was a practical abolitionist. “He wanted to end it. He just knew, to end it properly and carefully without creating economic and social havoc everywhere, it had to be done in steps,” he iterated.  

In a document from 1792 titled Substance of the argument of the Right Honourable Henry Dundas, on the slave trade, Dundas personally details the dilemma he faced. If an immediate ban were to be approved, “The Slave Trade would pass into the Hands of Foreigners supported by British Capitals; and, over them, we had no [control],” he wrote.

Tate noted that immediate abolition would have caused social and economic chaos–mass displacement, mass homelessness and famine. He also cites the unlikelihood of approval given Wilberforce’s failed attempt at immediate abolition one year prior. Once his petition gains 30,000 signatures, Tate aims to hand-deliver it in a binder to Mayor Olivia Chow.

The Costs of Renaming

Renaming Dundas St. will cost around $12.7 million, but the city has opted to wait until the other four civic assets are renamed before facing the costliest of them all. It is estimated, however, that the cost of renaming Yonge-Dundas Square is in the $300,000 to $340,000 range, according to a financial impact statement issued by Toronto’s Chief Financial Officer. The city plans on using section 37 funds specifically devoted to the construction and maintenance of the square. This money, given to Toronto by real estate developers, cannot be used for purposes unrelated to Yonge-Dundas Square. It currently amounts to approximately $538,000 with interest.

In the meantime, renaming Dundas Station will cost around $1.6 million–a bill to be paid by TMU. As for the Jane-Dundas Library and Dundas West Station, the respective $60,000 and $600,000 renaming price tags will be accounted for within each organization’s budget. With the exception of Dundas St., all the civic properties will have a new name confirmed by the end of the 2024 fiscal year. Opposition has been abundant in the name of money, which is not abundant in a city facing heavy financial pressures. In spite of this, Lochhead calls it “gross” to put a dollar amount on people’s pain and suffering.

What These Changes Mean for Toronto

As Toronto continues to navigate the complexities of history, race and identity politics, Sankofa Square stands as one of five new names set to replace Dundas across the city. 2024 is slated to bring no shortage of change to Toronto, which means no shortage of discourse and debate either. In the words of Mensah, “It’s not just a monolithic country.”