Toronto’s city council vote to change the name of Young-Dundas Square has resulted in the resignation of Mike Fenton, chair of the square’s board of management. Fenton felt the process was too rushed to offer the public an opportunity to weigh in on what the new name would be. 

Fenton wrote a letter Wednesday to the head of council’s civic appointments committee saying that while he supports the city’s effort to rename the facility, he felt the Dec. 12 naming to “Sankofa Square” didn’t give the public enough of an opportunity have their say “on this critical decision for city residents.”  

“While I support the selection of a new name for (Yonge-Dundas Square) — the lack of a consistent, public review to evaluate this decision has been disjointed and lacking good governance,” wrote Fenton.

“As a lifetime Toronto resident and civic-appointed (Yonge-Dundas Square) board member, this is not the process I would expect to see for a legacy decision, impacting a landmark Toronto public square.” 

Fenton, who has been a board member since 2015 and the chair since 2019, said his resignation was effective immediately.

Coun. Chris Moise, who proposed the name Sankofa at council last Thursday in a motion without notice, called Fenton’s resignation “a surprise.” 

However, his office defended the last-minute timing of Moise’s motion, citing rescheduling issues for the lack of time to present the proposal. 

The word Sankofa, “refers to the act of reflecting on and reclaiming teachings from the past which enables us to move forward together,” a concept originating in Ghana, according to Moise’s motion. Moise told council that the name change could help Black residents feel that “the city sees them.”

However, critics of the renaming say that the word originates from a tribe in Ghana which had ties to the slave trade themselves. 

One member of the renaming advisory committee, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, said she feels that Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow interfered in the process by demanding a single choice from council, instead of offering a consultation with the public.

“I expect they will tell me to resign,” Ramkhalawansingh told the Toronto Star. “I have no faith in the process given the interference by the mayor.”

Ramkhalawansingh is a former City of Toronto director of diversity management and civic engagement.

Initially, a review committee of Black and Indigenous leaders and other residents were supposed to create a shortlist of potential new names for Dundas Street to be presented to the public this fall, before it would go to city council for final approval in 2024. 

However, some councillors who were once in support of the idea began to change their mind after factoring in the billions of dollars it would cost to rename the entire 23-kilometre Dundas Street, at a time when the city was already dealing with severe budget problems. 

There were also a large number of supporters of Dundas, who disputed his role in delaying abolition, saying his legacy has been perversely misconstrued.

The motion to rename the square to Sankofa was a compromise, heavily supported by Chow, which proposed shelving the idea of renaming the entire Dundas street in lieu of renaming the square. 

The compromise was unanimously supported by the review committee one day before the proposal. 

Additionally, council has requested that two subway stations on the TTC, Dundas and Dundas West be renamed, asking that the Jane-Dundas Library board choose the new names. 

The new plan is estimated to cost the city about $700,000 and Moise’s motion passed with a vote of 19-to-2.

“I think it actually was handled very poorly. It was not an example of good governance,” said Coun. Josh Matlow (Toronto—St. Paul’s), who sits on the TTC board, despite voting in favour of the renaming himself. 

Both Chow and council have been accused of not adhering to due process but have not yet commented publicly on the backlash.