Henry Goulburn. Photo: Surrey Historical Centre

Ward 21 is a sprawling area in Ottawa’s southwest that happens to be named after a nineteenth century British politician and slaveholder. Henry Goulburn (locally, his name appears to be spelled more commonly as Goulbourn), an undersecretary of state, was very much the unrepentant sort of slave owner; even after Great Britain abolished slavery in 1807, Goulburn persisted in owning slaves at a sugar plantation in Jamaica. Already in 1826, during British elections, voters in Britain found Goulburn so unsavoury, that he was turfed from office. Goulburn has no connection to Canada, much less to Ottawa, but a ward that was part of a defunct township prior to the municipal reorganization of 2001 continues to bear his name.

Councillor Scott Moffatt, first elected in 2010, has been advocating to change the ward’s name for some time, proposing the mild, uncontroversial name Rideau-Jock — a reference to two rivers in the region. Councillor Moffatt argues that this should be an easy and unemotional change. Goulborn, unlike Sir John A. Macdonald — who is also at the centre of a renaming and statue-toppling controversy over issues of race —  is of no consequence to Canada’s or Ottawa’s history. The local councillor, however, was surprised to learn that many residents have displayed what he describes as a “who cares?” attitude when they learn of Goulburn’s past deeds. Interestingly, Brian Jenkins in a 1996 political biography published by McGill-Queen’s University Press describes “the moral dilemma of an essentially good man who depended on the institution of slavery for his private income” when speaking of Goulburn.

Despite public attitudes of indifference to Goulburn’s deeds, the name change is likely to proceed as planned and in all likelihood will come into effect January 1, 2022. Not everyone is satisfied with the bland new name. And for the record, Councillor Moffatt wanted to avoid renaming it after any historic figure. Sarah‌ ‌Onyango of Black History Ottawa, however, would prefer if an Indigenous name were chosen.

Russell, a municipality directly to the east of Ottawa, recently chose a novel way of addressing the fact that the town was named after Peter Russell, also a slave owner. Like Goulburn, Russell had absolutely no connection to eastern Ontario and he never visited the region. Rather than finding a new name, however, the town committed to embarking on a project to choose a different person called Russell to commemorate. In the other words, the town’s name is to be essentially repurposed.

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