Good riddance Amherst

A Montreal street was named after the perpetrator of one of the most famous genocidal crimes against Indigenous people. Not anymore.

I was pleased at the news last week that the city was renaming Amherst Street to Atateken, a Mohawk word that means brotherhood and sisterhood. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate gesture on Indigenous People’s Day than for Montreal to deliver the double whammy of honouring Indigenous history by erasing General Jeffery Amherst from our public space.

Former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre had announced the decision back in 2017, on the same day the city decided to add an Iroquois symbol to its flag, and – unlike the Formula E race — current mayor Valerie Plante had absolutely no qualms about following through on the previous administration’s commitment.

As historical villains go, Amherst is right up there with the worst of them. He advocated for the extermination of Indigenous people and was not averse to the use of biological warfare, “gifting” Indigenous tribes with blankets infected with smallpox. The highly contagious disease was largely responsible for decimating Indigenous populations.

“You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race,” wrote Amherst in a 1763 letter. “Extirpate this execrable race…” We like to call ourselves “settlers” because it connotes wholesome images of gently nudging folks to move over a bit and allow us to share some space on this sparsely populated blanket of a continent, but let’s face it: white folks were exterminators.

Since history is never written by the losers, and Amherst is best known as the top dog in Britain’s successful campaign to conquer the territory of New France during the Seven Years’ War, and he was of course given top colonizer honours for colonizing so well. We humans have always loved to glorify our military heroes despite the death and destruction they leave in their wake.  

To Amherst, as well as to many other French and English colonizers of that time, the people that they found already here on their never-ending quest to plunder North America’s natural riches were not viewed as human and were nothing more than major obstacles and inconveniences on the path to the promised land.

It’s therefore poetic justice that the city decided to erase Amherst’s presence on public property and replace it with Atateken.

Does it make up for our genocidal settler history? Of course not. But it’s a good start.

What’s in a name? Everything! Names matter, words matter, symbols matter, representation matters. Despite the tiresome protestations of the old guard who continue to whine about how removing statues and Confederate flags and street signs honouring history’s once-upon-a-time heroes accomplishes nothing and is merely lip service to the demands of easily triggered social justice warriors and the PC crowd, these gestures mean a lot.

Who we, as a collective, choose to publicly validate, honour and commemorate, ultimately communicates what we value in our society, and what we look for in those who lead us. What we choose to remove also communicates awareness of harm caused, as in the recent decision by McGill University to drop the Redmen name for its men’s varsity sports teams. These collective decisions to display or omit are not haphazard and meaningless. They matter.

Of course, we’d be hard-pressed to find any historical figures who could possibly live up to today’s expectations of a somewhat more evolved and just society, and this is true. Still… can we at least make a concerted effort to remove the butchering maniacs? Can we at least go that extra mile to remove from a place of honour historical figures who propagated the slaughter of innocent lives? Is that too hard or too costly for us?

I get tired of listening to folks who insist that we can’t rewrite history and that there’s no point in removing all signs of slavery, colonialism and barbarism from our public spaces because the cost and inconvenience are too cumbersome. Those protesting are usually white and male and rarely run the risk of seeing people of colour or women staring down at them from public pedestals and squares. It’s far easier to be complacent or indifferent to public celebrations and deifications of slaughter or slavery if neither affected your immediate ancestors.

Gestures like these still matter and the renaming of Amherst to Atataken was necessary. Street names not only honour the people who shaped our society, but also communicate what inspires us, what motivates us, what we place value on and what we choose to remember.

When I bike by rue Léa Roback, as a woman and a feminist, I notice. When I drive past rue Kahlil Gibran in the St-Laurent borough, as a lover of poetry and as an allophone, I notice. When I take the metro, and almost every single one of its 68 STM androcentric stations is named after male politicians, archbishops, military figures, barons, landowners and mayors, I notice. Forgive me if I feel a little slighted.

We can talk about being secular, but every second street named after a Catholic saint and every cross mounted on a school wall tells me otherwise. We can talk about gender equality, but every second street named after a man tells me otherwise. We can talk about peace, but every second street named after military generals and prime ministers who led us into war, tells me otherwise.

We pretend to value the arts and kindness and literature, but we have an embarrassing dearth of public street names, squares, parks and statues devoted to writers, poets, artists, activists, healers and people who make the world brighter and better and more beautiful. As a society we continue to venerate and immortalize people who often only held power yet were bereft of principles and clemency. A Mohawk word meaning community is a welcome and necessary change. Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning. ■