Russell, Ont. now named after 'all Russells' following rededication

If your name is Russell and you have a connection to Russell, Ont., congratulations. The town is now named after you.

The rededication comes nearly two years after councillors in the eastern Ontario town voted to keep the name Russell, but disassociate itself from its namesake and find a new one.

The town was originally named after Peter Russell, a slave-owning anti-abolitionist politician in the 1700s who never actually set foot in the township.

In a vote Tuesday night, council officially renounced Peter Russell as its namesake, adopting several new ones instead.

“Council chose that moving forward, rather than honouring one individual, the Township’s name honours all ‘Russells’ such as Russell Phair, Keith Russell, and others who would have helped develop our community into the jewel we love today,” Mayor Pierre Leroux said in a statement.

The rededication is the culmination of a process that started more than two years ago, with a petition that the town southeast of Ottawa change its name. Council voted to keep the name Russell, but find a new namesake.

Leroux told Newstalk 580 CFRA he was wrestling with the issue at home one day when his son suggested keeping the name.

“It was my son who actually said, ‘Just pick another Russell,’” Leroux told Ottawa at Work's Leslie Roberts. “I kind of laughed at the idea and I said, ‘We can’t do that.’ And he said, ‘Why not?’ And I didn’t have a good answer for him.”

The town struck a namesake rededication committee and accepted submissions from residents, of which there were plenty.

Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, was floated as an option. So was actor Andrew Garfield, whose middle name is Russell.

But ultimately, the committee looked closer to home. Russell Phair was the town’s “police chief, fire chief, barber and TV repairman” in the 1950s, Leroux said. Another man, Keith Russell, had a significant impact on the town, he said,

“It shouldn’t be named after just one person,” Leroux said. “We can recognize all the Russells that had a positive impact on our community.”

Keeping a name but changing a namesake is not unprecedented. King County, Washington changed its namesake to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1986. It had been named after slaveowner William R. King.

Leroux said the rededication is not an effort to rewrite the town’s history.

“We’re not trying to erase the past, but we do acknowledge that we needed a change,” he said. “We’ve had some amazing people in our community named Russell, and that’s who we’re naming it after.

“I think the vast majority of people are quite happy with the decision we’ve taken.”

Some local Russells were pleased with the news.

“I have been telling them the town is named after me as a joke for many years,” said Kurt Russell, who has lived in Russell since he was 11 and has volunteered with the local Lions Club for 20 years.

Joanne Arsenault, whose son is named Russell, said perhaps the rededication is a sign.

“Well, I was hoping he’d be the mayor one day,” she said.