The renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square – and its accompanying price tag – was a hot topic in Toronto City Hall yesterday, and the centre of a debate including both politicians and members of the public that got notably heated and emotional at times. The city’s bright and flashy downtown public square will soon be called Sankofa Square after Toronto City Council voted in December for the change. Yesterday, despite intense opposition calling for a halt to the initiative, Toronto City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Mike Colle confirmed to STOREYS that the city would move forward with the proposal.

Yonge-Dundas Square is to be stripped of the Dundas name due to its associations with the connections its namesake, Scottish politician Henry Dundas, has ties to the slave trade in the 18th century. The many proponents of the movement, like Colle, say it’s a way to respect and recognize Toronto’s Black community.

“Some people are trying to exploit this thing as an end-of-the-world scenario, but we’re just trying to ensure that the Black community in Toronto receive some recognition of their role and essential importance in making up the city,” says Colle. “Dundas was associated with the colonial past and was a key player in slavery. There are a growing number of persons of African descent living in Toronto and we want to recognize them and their real and serious requests.”

But the decision is certainly not one without its vocal and passionate opponents, who criticize the plan for everything from its alleged inaccuracies regarding Henry Dundas' position on the slave trade, to its price tag, expressing desires to preserve the city’s past, and objections to the new name, “Sankofa.”

Most notably, an online petition to stop the renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square has acquired some 30,000 signatures and outlines such criticisms and concerns. “We demand Dundas Street, TTC Stations and Yonge & Dundas Square retain the name Dundas unless the city can afford a robust public vote about the necessity of a new name,” reads the petition. “And if that vote concludes that a new name is necessary then a vote on the new name should follow.”

While pricey plans to change the street and TTC station names aren’t currently moving forward – despite the petition, which argues that the renaming would “erase part of our collective memory” – the renaming of Yonge-Dundas Square will indeed persist. The petition’s website links to events that have taken place in the storied square – everything from a Tragically Hip concert to the mass celebration following the Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship win.

Of course, name changes are inevitable and nothing new in rapidly evolving cities. The fact that the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series Championships in what was then called The Sky Dome doesn’t really take away the memories of those famous wins, now that the venue is called Rogers Centre, does it?

Image" Yonge-Dundas Square Facebook

“The petition's view is that – however well-meaning the intentions are behind the name change – this is widely unpopular and is initiated by bad history,” the petition’s co-author Jonny Pottins tells STOREYS. “The way it [the whole renaming initiative] was handled didn’t involve the input of Toronto citizens, the citizens are against it, and the polling is overwhelmingly against it. We think the City mishandled the history and misrepresented their findings, and are misusing money.”

Pottins says he’s first to admit that he’s not a historian, but that he consulted two notable historians, who said the City used discredited history to advance the claims of Dundas. “If you look at the actual history, Dundas is absolved of what he’s accused of,” says Pottins. Furthermore, Pottins says the word "Sankofa" itself – “while beautiful and meaningful to many people” – doesn’t resonate with Toronto residents the way it would, for example, to name the square after a prominent Black Toronto citizen.

When it comes to the tab, the City says the rebrand won’t come from taxpayers’ dollars, as critics have suggested. Colle says that – despite calls from the Yonge-Dundas Square Board of Management, the agency that runs the square, that the initiative will cost $600,000 more than originally anticipated – the City has the existing resources for an initial rebrand. The name change will cost $105,000 for fresh signage and $230,000 for marketing, communication, and rebranding, says the City. “It will cost about $335,000 to rebrand the square, clean it up a bit, and give it a clean look,” says Colle.

This will be paid for via Sec. 37 community funds (charges levied on developments) from Councillor Chris Moise’s ward’s budget – funds that have been allocated to the improvement of the square and have been “sitting there for over a decade,” says Colle.

When it comes to additional costs, both Mayor Olivia Chow and Colle have said that the rename is not going to cost as much as some critics claim. At any rate, a formal letter written by city manager Paul Johnson said that any additional costs above the $335,000 would be funded “through third-party financial partners and in-kind support.”

Moise, one of the few Black members of City Council, was a vocal proponent of the initiative in City Hall yesterday, coming head-to-head with Daniel Tate, who co-authored the petition against the renaming of the square. While renaming the square seems like a no-brainer to many – especially if the City already has the funds to do so – Tate passionately argued against it. Tate has been vocal in his view that such funds could be better spent on managing the relentless homeless crisis in Moise’s ward, and argues against the relevance of the new name, Sankofa, which originates in Ghana and “refers to the act of reflecting on and reclaiming teachings from the past, which enables people to move forward together," according to a City of Toronto news release.

Tate is not alone in his objection of the change. In fact, a poll taken in January found that the majority (72%) of respondents are actually opposed to renaming the square.

At the end of the day, the reality is that a rebrand of the iconic square will benefit the whole city. Colle says that renaming the square also means giving it a needed refresh in terms of programming – and a lot of it. “The square could use some rebranding; it’s pretty dangerous down there right now,” says Colle. “It’s fallen on hard times and there’s a real problem with street drugs. Outside of name changes, we need to make the square safe and appealing again. You can host big events, put if you have a bunch of people addicted to drugs hanging around, [it] isn’t going to be that appealing. We want it to be a place of celebration. We want to rebrand it and clean it up a bit.”

This means plans to bring in support to transform the space from its current state, along with eventually doubling the venue’s programming.

“We’re going to pursue some partnerships and sponsorships,” says Colle. “Now that this is settled, staff at the square can reach out to these people. When they have events at the square, they get sponsors to help pay for events at the square. To put on a concert there it costs $500,000. But there are sponsors who will pay for that. There were only about 120-130 events in the square last year. The one goal in this report is seeing if we can double that in terms of events and concerts. Right now, it’s a little flat. Sponsorship dollars can pay for things like really big bands. Investing in community events at the square is smart; you can get a couple hundred thousand people there quite quickly.”

The perpetually bustling square is most recently home to a Shake Shack – the first in Canada – which opened last week and has seen long lineups since.

In terms of next steps, the item goes to city council, where it will be debated on June 26. As of now, the Yonge-Dundas Square signage has been removed, and Colle says we’ll see signs of the rebrand in the coming months.