Jan. 23, 2018
By Arianne Robinson
As women around the world took to the streets this past weekend for the global women’s march, Signal Toronto looked at the spaces that connect the streets – the city’s laneways – and specifically the names of those streets.
We looked at 89 laneways named since 2014 (since the beginning of this electoral term) in Toronto, Scarborough, Etobicoke, and North York, including the backstory for why they were named what they were. The main things we looked for were whether the name of the laneway refers to a man, woman, family, business, or other. The analysis found that almost half of the laneways named since 2014 are named after men; over a third are named in relation to nature, history, or a business or group; and 15 percent are named after women.
Laneway names are decided at monthly community council meetings where fewer than a dozen city councillors have authority to authorize the name of a lane. Councillors introduce the new names at committee (applications can come from anyone, including the councillor, and are coordinated through the councillor’s office in advance of the community council meeting) and explain the backstory and significance of the name.
As of 2016, the city had 2,400 laneways, approximately 450 of which had names. Basically anyone, dead or live, can have a laneway named after them – as long as the person or a family member gives their consent. (To read the technical details of city’s policy, click here.)
The city’s naming policy cuts through socioeconomic status, race, gender, and privilege. The policy states: “Street names, including ceremonial Street names should portray a strong positive image and have historical, cultural, aboriginal or social significance or contributions to the community, the City, the Province of Ontario or Canada.”
Without criteria that explicitly states that the names of the city’s laneways should reflect the population of the city, the result is a disproportionate recognition of men over women and trans people. People who see those names on their local streets may believe that men have actually made more contributions and been more significant in the building of the city’s history and culture than women.
Despite the lack of gender lens in the policy, there are a few women who are actually recognized with laneway names – and they are women who have clearly left an important mark on the city.
For example, Branca Gomes Lane, north of College Street between Crawford and Shaw Streets, is named after Branca Gomes, also known as Dona Branca.
Gomes’s backstory (as described in the motion) begins with her as a teenager in Portugal where she rode a horse to get to work. After immigrating to Canada she was one of the founders of the first Portuguese school in North America and was always helping others. “New arrivals from Portugal were sure to seek her assistance in order to establish themselves by finding a job, schools for their children and everything else a newcomer would need. Her home would be many people’s first home. She fed and clothed when she could,” the motion reads.
In Forest Hill Village, a driveway south of Lonsdale and west of Spadina was named Lallie Haye Lane to honour a woman who worked nearby for decades.
The backstory for this laneway reads, “Lallie came from Jamaica in 1966 and began working at Bilton’s Fine Foods in 1968. After Bilton’s closed, Lallie worked at Kitchen Table, serving her community until her retirement in 2012. Lallie’s strong personality, infectious good humour, ready welcome for every customer, and obvious courage in the face of physical difficulties during the last years of her employment, endeared her to Village residents for more than 40 years.”
There is also a laneway remembering Aileen Robertson, who was also referred to as Queen Aileen the First. The backstory for Robertson reads she “lived on Rathnelly Ave. from 1924 to 1986. She was crowned Queen Aileen the First in 1967 and until her death at nearly 100 she presided over each biannual Rathnelly Day with dignity and an immense sense of humour.”
Among the men who have had laneways named after them are: celebrated sculptor and painter Michael Snow; former city councillor Howard Moscoe; a firefighter who died in a random stabbing, Dominic Parker; former Toronto Symphony Orchestra conductor Sir Andrew Davis; vocal neighbourhood advocate Dov Altman; and Bishop in the Diocese of Toronto, Bishop Arthur Brown.
It appears that a small part of city building, at least when it comes to laneway naming, is a men’s club. It’s not that women can’t get in or aren’t allowed – it’s just the way it’s gone.
On the one-year anniversary of one of the biggest women’s marches in history, as some walked along the many streets and laneways, a few may have wondered, “where are the names that represent people like me?”