In ACROSS CANADA BY STORY, I talk frankly about an18th-century man named Amherst.
I note that Amherst Island, near Kingston, “is named after the British military officer Sir Jeffery Amherst, who played a distinguished role in the capture of Quebec in 1760. Sadly, he was also a genocidal thug. In the long history of broken promises that marked the dealings between white invaders in Canada and the Native people they replaced, nothing was so terrible as the germ warfare that Amherst proposed to introduce around Fort Detroit in 1763 by giving local Indians a gift of smallpox-infected blankets, hoping, in his own words, to “extirpate” them.”
After he left Canada in 1763 to return to England, his military successes overshadowed his genocidal experiments. Unfortunately his devalued name now marks three fine communities. Amherst, near the New Brunswick border, is cheerfully described as “a gateway to Nova Scotia”, and any traveller in the Maritimes will agree that all roads seem to lead to it. Amherstburg, on the Detroit River near Lake Erie, is a small Ontario town originally laid out by Loyalists. And Amherst Island is a fine, thriving Island set in Lake Ontario just west of Kingston.
In Montreal, however, it was decided to remove the man’s name from the city. Montreal, of course, has a mixed record when it comes to changing street names. Some time ago the city embarrassed itself by re-naming the old “Mountain Street” as “La Rue de la Montagne”. This would have been fine if “Mountain Street” had been named after the prominent geographical feature that dominates the landscape there. In fact it was named in honour of the Englishman Jacob Mountain, who in 1793 was appointed Anglican bishop of the new diocese of Quebec.
In this case, however, Montreal got it right. The name “Amherst” no longer appears on the city’s street map. It has been replaced by the Mohawk word “Atateken”. Choosing a Mohawk replacement is very clever. What makes it ideal is that the word means “Brotherhood”.
So well done, Montreal, welcome “Rue Atateken”, and congratulations to Mayor Valerie Plante for realising that this was an important ceremony to attend.
Now we turn our attention to Halifax. When I was at the Writers’ Union AGM there, I strolled east to see what had happened at the park just outside the Westin Hotel Nova Scotian. That little park used to be dominated by a statue of Amherst. Amid much controversy the city had decided to remove it.
I went along to see what had replaced it.
The answer is…. nothing. We now have a park with a central place for a statue……and absolutely nothing there, and nothing to explain why there is this empty space. Maybe the people in Halifax should be talking to their friends in Montreal.
The park in Halifax was named not for Amherst, but for another genocidal thug named Sir Edward Cornwallis, the “founder” of Halifax.
Very well said. When I taught at Saint Mary’s U. many years ago (1990s) the Amherst statue was near the Red Light district. Many of the young girls in the trade were First Nations and knew nothing of Amherst. It was sad. The need to be rid of the statue was in full swing, but it took years to actually take it down.
Martin Dowding, PhD
Wilfrid Laurier University
Thanks,Don, for the important correction. I still hope the Halifax people will take advice from their Montreal cousins to solve the current “Black Hole of Cornwallis” with a suitable indigenous replacement.
Martin, It’s always exciting to hear from you, and your old Galt high-school friend, the lovely and talented Jane, sends you her warmest greetings. Ironically, the original quote from ACROSS CANADA BY STORY ends with a fine moment from our visit to Amherst Island: “One female member of the audience, impressed by my introduction of Jane as “my lovely and talented assistant”, asked her very seriously if she had married me in the course of our tour. A very pleasing thought….lowly young techie succeeds in persuading the great star to marry her, and make an honest woman of her.”
There are maps in 1761 and 1778 showing “Mountain Street” as “Chemin de la Montagne”, quite in advance of Jacob Mountain’s arrival in North America. However, I have yet to find legal proof that Mountain Street was named after anyone named Mountain, let alone Jacob Mountain. Could you please cite legal sources indicating that Mountain Street was named after, or reconsecrated in the name of, a person, as opposed to simply quoting popular folklore?