Following the many protests around the world against racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests have also gained momentum to remove names and symbols associated with slavery or racism in history.
An online petition was started to change the name of Russell Township because the township’s namesake, Peter Russell, owned slaves. Peter Russell (1733-1808) was the administrator of Upper Canada between 1796 and 1799.
As of Monday, June 15, the Change.org petition to rename Russell had received 1,485 signatures. A petition to retain the Russell name had received 3,051 signatures as of June 15.
Russell County, and Russell Township were named after Peter Russell in 1798. The post office in the Village of Russell was named in 1848 with developer William Duncan as the postmaster. Four years later, his son, John, succeeded him as postmaster and renamed the community Duncanville, but the post office name remained as Russell. The village was renamed Russell in 1898.
In 1820, the administration of Russell County was combined with Prescott County to form the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR).
According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Peter Russell was born in Cork, Ireland in 1733 and died in York (now Toronto) in 1808. His life was an economic roller coaster of gambling, politics, military exploits, and business. At one point he owned a tobacco plantation in Virginia, spent time in prison for unpaid debts, and was continually trying to earn money, land, and military or political influence.
Vankleek Hill Museum Registrar Michelle Landriault said that at one point, in one of his periods of poverty, Russell lamented that he did not have the money to invest in the slave market. Later, when he did own slaves, he auctioned a mother and son off even though the woman’s husband — the father of her son — was already a freed man.
Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself within the British Empire was abolished in 1834.
Landriault said that there is no evidence that Russell ever visited the village, township, and county named after him.
Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux, who is also Warden of the UCPR, is introducing a notice of motion at the June 15 township council meeting to address the issue of Peter Russell.
The motion states that Peter Russell’s values do not reflect those of the township’s current residents and that Russell seeks to be a “kind-hearted”, inclusive community. It recognizes the “offensive nature” of Peter Russell and states that the municipality and community do not share his values.
In August, 2018, MoneySense magazine ranked Russell as the third-best place to live in Canada.
While acknowledging that the name could be hurtful and disrespectful to residents, Leroux’s motion proposes maintaining the Russell name but rededicating it after someone with the first, middle, or family name Russell who is worthy of the honour. A vetting committee would be established to evaluate and make recommendations of other possible Russell’s to council.
“Most of the population does not want to change the name of Russell,” said Leroux, who said that when people think of community when they think of the name Russell.
“Nobody thinks of this guy,” said Leroux.
He said that changing the name would cost the township alone $50,000 to $100,000, but then local businesses and community organizations would also have to decide on the effort and cost of changing their names.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” said Leroux.
He believes that rededicating the name is a community-building exercise that will bring Russell residents together.
Leroux noted that King County in Washington state, was first named after William Rufus DeVane King, a slave owner from Alabama. In 1986, the county was rededicated in honour of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Leroux said that he has not received any requests at the UCPR level to consider changing the name of Russell County.
Russell Township council will vote on Leroux’s motion at the June 29 meeting.