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Local First – What’s in a Name?

Hello, bonjour, and welcome to Local First on Carlsbad-Vars Radio, CJRO, at 107.7 and 107.9 FM and online, at

I’m Candice Vetter, coming into your home from mine.

If you listened to my news broadcast this week, you’ll have heard our top story. Not only a story here, but all across Canada. It’s about the name of Russell, although it’s not clear if that means Russell the village, Russell the township, Prescott-Russell the county, or numerous streets named Russell Road, North Russell Road, or South Russell Road.

A former resident of Russell Village, Denis Agar, who now lives in British Columbia, has suggested Russell should change its name, because it was named after Peter Russell, a slave owner 200 years ago.

I’d like to argue that if we’re going to change all the place names called after someone who was unethical, we’d have to change almost every European name that has ever been used that way.

Yes, naming places after people has always seemed weird. I’m a firm believer in using names that are descriptive rather than commemorative. For example, there are way too many things or places named Victoria or Champlain or Columbia, and they should never have been called that. But now they are, and while we could reverse course and stop naming things after people, the truth is we’re still doing it. Bridges, roads and overpasses are regularly given the name of a person who may or may not deserve recognition.

Toppling statues is one thing—it’s popular and appropriate, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed watching some of these old ignorant bigots be literally pushed off their pedestals. But why change a name if the person named after was not notorious? And who then would it be named after? When Canada was at war with Germany the name of Berlin, Ontario was changed to Kitchener. But many historians since then have said Kitchener himself should have been tried as a war criminal, and he would have been, if his side had lost. Have we changed that city’s name again? No. And if we had, no doubt thousands of residents would have had a fit.

Why? Changing names is expensive. It is time consuming. It is highly disruptive. It causes lost mail and packages and phone calls. It is confusing. It is pointless. It renders maps and GPS useless. And it should not be done at a time when everyone is already suffering financially.

So Russell Mayor, Pierre Leroux, suggested that instead of changing Russell’s name, they claim it is named after another Russell. People can send in suggestions. Clever idea and much easier, but again is it necessary?

As soon as I heard about this argument I did some research into Peter Russell. According to one of my favourite references, From Swamp and Shanty by Wendell M. Stanley, Russell Township had once been Elmsley Township (after Chief Justice John Elmsley). A Russell Township was located in Lanark County, and around 1797 the two townships switched names.

Peter Russell, an administrator of Upper Canada at the time, probably put his name on it then. But that is not the same as being named after Peter Russell. In fact, no one knows or cares about Peter Russell or who he was. He’s not celebrated or remembered. There’s no Peter Russell Day or statue. Back when this area was being settled by Europeans you didn’t have to be famous or heroic to have something named after you. Administrators often had opportunities to put their own names on places. Thousands of post offices in Canada bear testament to that trend.

And yes, Russell did own slaves. He also attempted to profit from the slave trade (unsuccessfully), and he tried to delay the abolition of slavery. He was also a heavy gambler, having to leave Britain and move to the Americas to escape his gambling debts. He was a soldier for many years and must have gotten better at gambling, because at one point he made enough money to buy a large property with a grand mansion. When the United States rebelled against British overlordship in 1776 he made his way to Upper Canada and worked for John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe worked towards the abolition of slavery, but he also massacred 40 Native Americans in the Bronx in 1778.

Peter Russell was kind of the opposite. He owned a family of slaves and he also delayed the abolition of slavery. However, he also defended the human rights and supported the land rights of First Nations people in what is now Toronto.

Very few other persons in power even acknowledged indigenous rights at the time—treaties or not. Russell tried to get protections for Aboriginal peoples against the encroaching settlers. And if you want to talk about people who have been mistreated by whites, let’s talk about our First Nations.

He also used his power to reduce speculation, corruption and nepotism in the land grants system, thereby improving Upper Canada’s legal property system.

Naming places after people has always been fraught with tension, too. One never knows what skeletons may climb out of which closets, necessitating another name change in the future.

So here’s another idea.

One of our listeners made a suggestion which I much prefer, and that is calling Russell after its rusty-red soil and brick-red shale. The red earth is characteristic of North Russell and the first four concessions in Russell Township, and it is also well-drained and some of the best soil around. Along with the red shale once mined from Quarry Lake, maybe the name Russell should just refer to the rusty-coloured land.

Either way, Russell won’t be changing its name at all. Russell Township’s mayor, Pierre Leroux, immediately stated a name change would be too hard on residents and businesses. Russell Township and its population have put much effort into branding the township, and that favourable marketing shouldn’t be thrown aside.

Leroux suggested that someone else named Russell be honoured here, and he has invited suggestions, to be debated in Council.

Do you have an interesting story that matters to our area? If yes, contact me by emailing

CJRO – Last on the dial, first for local news.

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