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Why this resident wants one of Toronto’s oldest, richest neighbourhoods renamed

One of the city’s oldest and most affluent neighbourhoods — Baby Point — could get a new name, as part of an ongoing city review that may designate the neighbourhood a Heritage Conservation District (HCD).

Local resident David Rainsberry has been lobbying the city and his local councillor, Gord Perks (Parkdale—High Park), to have the name changed.

The Baby family, after which the neighbourhood is named, owned slaves in the late 1700s and early 1800s and so, he said, is not worthy of being memorialized.

“When you choose to put someone’s name on a street, you choose to elevate that personality, you choose to celebrate him,” Rainsberry told CBC Toronto. “And I query whether that’s a personality that deserves our continued support.”

Rainsberry’s initiative comes three years after city council voted to rename Dundas Street, on the grounds that the street’s namesake, British politician Henry Dundas, did not do enough to hasten the end of the trans-Atlanic slave trade in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Council put that plan on hold late last year, but it agreed to change the name of Dundas Square to Sankofa Square.

The names of the Jane-Dundas Public Library, Dundas and Dundas West subway stations will be changed, too.

City staff have also been looking into renaming other city streets that could have troubling connotations.

Rainsberry’s name change proposal is part of the city’s ongoing review — an HCD designation would protect homes in the neighbourhood from substantial alteration or demolition, without special permission from the city.

It’s not clear when that review will be complete. 

Rainsberry said he has some support locally, but he told CBC Toronto he knows he’s facing an uphill struggle.

Maria Subtelny, a historian and member of the board of the Baby Point Preservation Foundation, says the slave owning member of the Baby family never set foot in Canada, and is being mistaken for his son, James Baby, a prominent Upper Canada civil servant who bought the property in 1820.
Maria Subtelny, a historian and member of the board of the Baby Point Preservation Foundation, says the slave-owning member of the Baby family never set foot in Canada and is being mistaken for his son, James Baby, a prominent Upper Canada civil servant who bought the property in 1820. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

The Baby Point Preservation Foundation is against the name change.

Board member and historian Maria Subtelny said some of the controversy may come from a misreading of history.

The 2 James Babys 

She said the land, about 600 hectares located north of Bloor Street West near Jane Street, on the west side of the Humber River, was originally bought as a country retreat in 1812 by James Baby, a prominent Upper Canada government official. 

It was his father, Subtelny said, also named James Baby, who was a prominent Detroit slave owner, with about 20 slaves. She says James Baby Sr. never set foot in Canada.

James Baby Jr. “did a lot of good stuff,” she said. “I would not like to see his name besmirched.”

She said Baby Jr. did inherit one slave, a woman, but he emancipated her in 1803.

To Rainsberry though, it’s a moot point.

“The streets in this community bear a family name — Baby,” he wrote in an email to CBC Toronto. 

“I find it incredible that in 2024 we are splitting hairs to ensure the continued prominence of this heritage in our City.”

Gord Perks
City Coun. Gord Perks, who represents the neighbourhood, says the city has a process in place for people who wish to change the names of their neighbourhood or its streets. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Subtelny said she wonders whether some people are hoping to sabotage the HCD review in order to ensure their homes can be easily redeveloped. 

“Some people think the value of their homes will fall,” she said.

Rainsberry told CBC Toronto he is not against the HCD designation — it’s the name of the neighbourhood, where he’s lived for 13 years, that irks him. 

Coun. Perks, pointing out that the HCD process is ongoing, said he’s still considering the renaming issue.

Perks suggested that anyone who wants a neighbourhood or a street renamed should go through the appropriate channels at city hall. 

“We have a process; there’s an application you fill out, there is evidence you provide,” he said. “City councillors are not necessarily experts in tracking down historical stuff.”

Rainsberry said he began looking into the history of the leafy neighbourhood in 2018, when the city’s heritage preservation services department began examining the possibility of designating the neighbourhood.

Rainsberry said his research led him to the realization that the Baby family had been slave owners.

At public consultations, he said he found others who share the view that the Baby family should not be commemorated in the neighbourhood’s name. But most of the Baby Point residents who answered their doors to CBC Toronto last week said they don’t agree the name should be changed.

“Absolutely not,” said 31-year resident Tracy Ross. “I don’t know how you can constantly rewrite history to create a new narrative.”

Further along Baby Point Crescent, Maureen Walsh was also opposed to a name change.

“I think there are greater things to be concerned about,” she said.

Kimberly De Witte said she is neither for nor against a name change. But she wants the history of the neighbourhood retained, warts and all. 

“We need to know why it was problematic in the first place,” she said.

The neighbourhood was established in 1913, according to the Baby Point Preservation Foundation’s website. 

Although by then the land had long passed out of the Baby family’s hands, the foundation notes, the name was retained by the developer, Robert Home Smith, who also named several streets after the family.

“It’s our history,” Subtelny said. “We can’t just dispose of our history.”

It’s unclear when the HCD process will conclude, Perks said, but more public consultations are planned in the months ahead. Further information is available on the city’s website.

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