Alidad Mafinezam is president of the non-profit organization West Asia Council.
Since Canada adopted immigration reform and opened its doors to the wider world more than half a century ago, millions of people from around the world have chosen to make the country their home. Demographic change has been most visible in Canada’s largest cities and regions, particularly in the Greater Toronto area. GTA is often hailed as the world’s most diverse site and ranked last year as the fastest growing jurisdiction in the world, with immigrants making up almost half of Toronto’s population.
Yet riding along or walking in Toronto’s busiest and most historic districts and neighborhoods also highlights another fact: The overwhelming majority of streets and institutions’ names, and those that adorn the city’s public buildings, museums and monuments and appear on campuses in its universities, colleges and schools are white men.
Street names like Yonge, Finch, Dundas, Bloor, Dufferin, Bathurst and so many others mostly refer to prominent 19th-century British subjects who settled the country and laid the foundations for the new dominion. In our time, on the outside and inside the hallways and main rooms of prestigious venues such as Massey Hall, Roy Thomson Hall, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the Royal Ontario Museum, and on the campuses of the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and the suburbs of York University dominate white names that trace their origins to continental Europe and the British Isles: Jackman, Weston, Koerner, Sharp, Bloomberg, Robarts, Rotman, Dan, Munk, Goldring, Levy, Schulich, Ross , MacDonald, Kerr, O’Keefe, Pittman, Schwartz-Reisman and dozens of others.
While Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum and the building that houses the Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University represent a welcome change to highlight the generosity, success, and contributions of recent immigrants to Canada, they make up a small minority in one place. as diverse and dynamic as Toronto.
When the names of a city’s landmarks do not reflect the ethnic and cultural composition and diversity of its population, as is the case in Toronto today, a large proportion of citizens may feel that their backgrounds and contributions from their communities are not reflected in the public consciousness. and discourse in Toronto, and more broadly in Canada’s other increasingly diverse cities.
Names often honor wealthy individuals who contribute donations. Their names on public venues give great prestige to them and their estates, honoring them as exemplary and generous leaders worthy of imitation. Such naming also shows the interplay between affiliation and ownership that donors feel towards their city and country. You give back to where you belong and take care of what you own. When the names of venues are limited to a select section of the population, the sense of belonging and ownership among others is undermined.
In order to diversify the pool of Canada’s leading philanthropists, whose names are placed on buildings, immigrant communities and the leading entrepreneurs and businessmen in their ranks must be made to feel a greater sense of belonging and ownership to their city and given responsibility for our collective destiny. Fundraising professionals in the city’s leading institutions need to spend more time cultivating potential donors among the area’s budding immigrant communities, who possess vast reservoirs of monetary and human wealth and goodwill toward their adopted country, but whose involvement and presence in Canada’s philanthropic sector and its arts and letters are far below its potential.
Some names are already being contested in the name of diversity and anti-racism. The accounts of Canada’s residential school system this year have coincided with preliminary decisions in the city to change the names of Ryerson University and Dundas Street for their namesake’s racist attitudes towards the country’s indigenous people and the slavery of black people, respectively.
Changing the names of major streets and monuments can be a slippery slope and a cumbersome, endless process, especially when it involves judging 19th-century actions and perspectives with a 21st-century lens. An alternative to “cancellation culture” is to ensure that more of our public places and buildings, and the streets yet to be built, are named after leading and exemplary people who represent Canada’s diversity.
The mission to diversify our social and public arenas and to place more names of indigenous and black people and other colored people on landmarks would be particularly meaningful if it went beyond celebrating wealthy donors and included highlighting exemplary lives dedicated to service, art. and education, in addition to generating monetary wealth and distributing it to good causes.
Keep your opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.