It seems Montrealers are increasingly using online petitions to force change in their city. One demanding the removal of a statue of James McGill has gathered more than 5,000 signatures since the beginning of June. Another asking for the removal of a Sir John A. Macdonald statue in downtown Montreal's Dominion Square has received thousands of signatures as well.

And then there’s the one calling on the city to rename the Lionel-Groulx metro station after legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, which has gathered over 20,000 signatures in two weeks.  

For many, online petitions have become a powerful way to express dissent and to organize — but do they work? Does anybody listen to them? Will they really change the station's name if the petition reaches its goal of 25,000 signatures? And if not, what is the procedure for bringing about a name-change?

The city has made 27 changes to its toponymy — which is a fancy term for place names — since July 2015, said city spokeswoman Marilyne Laroche Corbeil in an email. They included three buildings, 16 parks, and eight streets.

But the city is usually reluctant to change place names for fear of creating chaos in the streets for anyone who needs a clear point of reference to get where they’re going.

However, sometimes the city does rename a place in honour of important figures and events from our history.

In 2015, a section of rue University was renamed boulevard Robert Bourassa after a former premier.

And some of our more long-in-the-tooth residents might remember when boulevard René-Lévesque in downtown Montreal was Dorchester Boulevard.

Other times a name is changed when following widespread opposition or political decisions, Corbeil said, like in 2019 when a street named after controversial British General Jeffery Amherst was rechristened rue Atateken, a Mohawk word meaning fraternity.

Anyone can submit a name-change proposal for a public space to the city, said Corbeil. The proposals will be sent to the Toponymy Committee of the City of Montreal and from there they're to the appropriate boroughs and municipal departments for approval.

At that stage, the city council makes its decision by adopting or rejecting a resolution. If it's adopted, it's sent to the Commission de toponymie du Québec, which oversees all new place names in the province.

"As far as possible, the city seeks to reach the families and relatives of the people whose names it wishes to use in toponymy before transmitting a recommendation to the decision-making bodies," said Corbeil.

In some cases, if a new name cannot be assigned immediately but is still considered usable, it is added to a list of approved place names, which can be called upon when necessary.

Historically, the city has been ready to budge when it comes to streets or parks but anyone looking to rename a metro stop could be in for a tougher time.

The STM has rejected all requests it received for name changes since 1989 and declared a moratorium on station name changes 14 years ago.

The organizers of the Oscar Peterson initiative have the right to submit their petition to the STM board so that the request is officially registered, said STM spokesperson Philippe Déry in an email.

"However, the global orientation of the STM is to keep the actual stations names, which are part of Montreal’s toponymic legacy and integrated in our client’s habits," he said.

The name of Lionel-Groulx is a direct reference to the avenue bearing the same name, "thus changing the station name would also require to rename the avenue," he added.

There have been only five name changes in the history of the metro, he explained.

Berri-De Montigny was changed to Berri-UQAM in 1988, Guy was changed to Guy-Concordia in 1988, Île-Sainte-Hélène was changed to Jean-Drapeau in 2001, Longueuil was switched to Longueuil–Université-de-Sherbrooke in 2003 and Square-Victoria was changed to Square-Victoria–OACI in 2014.

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