Township of Russell now named after 'all Russells,' not slave owner

·3 min read
The Township of Russell, Ont., was originally named after Peter Russell, a high-ranking administrator in the government of Upper Canada who also owned slaves. The council has now rededicated the community to anyone with the name Russell who's made a 'positive impact' locally. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)
The Township of Russell, Ont., was originally named after Peter Russell, a high-ranking administrator in the government of Upper Canada who also owned slaves. The council has now rededicated the community to anyone with the name Russell who's made a 'positive impact' locally. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)

The Township of Russell, Ont., is now named for all people with that name who have a "positive impact" on the eastern Ontario community, rather than Peter Russell, a politician who owned four slaves in pre-Confederation Canada.

The issue came to the fore two years ago when a former resident started a petition to change the name.

Pierre Leroux, the town's mayor, said the decision was made to drop the link in 2020, but pandemic delays pushed the decision until this month.

"Everybody here in the municipality has always loved the name Russell. We are proud of our name. Nobody ever knew who Peter Russell was. So this is a very good compromise," Leroux told CBC.

The township just east of Ottawa was named after Russell, a high-ranking administrator in the government of Upper Canada.

Born in Ireland, Russell relocated to Toronto — then known as York — in the late 18th century, a time when slavery was still legal in Upper Canada. He had a free Black man named Pompadour in his employ, but also enslaved Pompadour's wife, Peggy, and their three children, Amy, Jupiter and Milly.

George Theodore Berthon/Archives of Ontario
George Theodore Berthon/Archives of Ontario

Same name, different namesake

Leroux said it wasn't the financial commitment of a complete name change that led them to keeping Russell, but rather the impact on organizations and businesses like the Russell Restaurant that take their name from the township.

"I saw what was happening. There were lines being drawn. There were people taking sides in the township," Leroux said about early discussions on what to call their home.

It was over a family dinner, Leroux said, that his son suggested the township choose a different Russell to be named after — and when Leroux brought the idea to council, they supported it.

There's precedent for a name change like theirs, Leroux added, noting that in Washington state in 2005, King County switched its namesake from a former vice-president who owned slaves to Martin Luther King Jr.

He said the feedback he's heard has all been positive.

"Sometimes you've got to shake things up and help us learn and evolve from it. So now I'm happy we had the discussion."

Out of the discussion came the township's community, diversity, inclusion and equity committee, which has set to work on developing a land acknowledgment for the start of council meetings.

Olivia Chandler/CBC
Olivia Chandler/CBC

Suggestions included British philosopher, Spider-man actor

After deciding to keep the name, the plan was to hold a science fair-like pitch session for residents to suggest a new namesake.

The criteria specified that the person's first, middle or last name be Russell. In the end there were seven unique names proposed — but only two had local connections, Keith Russell and Russell Phair.

Keith Russell was a "long-time resident" of the community, Leroux said. Phair, meanwhile, was a jack-of-all-trades who lived in the town before Leroux was born.

"The joke was that if you'd walk into this store and ask to talk to him, he'd pull out the right hat from underneath the counter."

The other submissions included British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Canadian comedian Russell Peters and Andrew R. Garfield, the actor known for playing Spider-man — as his middle name is Russell.

The committee charged with reviewing the submissions admitted they'd expected more options, and so the decision was made to commemorate all Russells.

"It makes sense to name it after all the Russells who had a positive impact," Leroux said. "So we don't find ourselves in this situation five, ten, 20 years down the road."

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