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Montreal bids adieu to Amherst, removing British general’s name from city street

The new city of Montreal flag flies next to City Hall on Sept. 13, 2017.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

"Goodbye, Mr. Amherst."

With three words, Montreal's mayor declared British commander Jeffery Amherst's name expunged from a central city street because of the general's role in advocating germ warfare against Aboriginal peoples in the 18th century.

The announcement by Mayor Denis Coderre means that Amherst Street is set to disappear after 200 years on Montreal's landscape. And Gen. Amherst becomes the latest historic figure in Canada to face erasure from a public space as past beliefs collide with modern sensibilities.

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Gen. Amherst is known to have favoured distributing smallpox-infected blankets to Indigenous people.

"If we want reconciliation, I don't think we should celebrate someone who wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples," Mr. Coderre said on Wednesday.

Mr. Coderre made the announcement on the day the city unveiled a new flag that recognizes the contribution of Indigenous people to the city's founding. The revised city flag adds the native symbol of a white pine to the four emblems representing the French, English, Irish and Scottish.

While the new flag has been widely applauded as a gesture of reconciliation, response to the removal of Amherst was mixed. Amherst Street spills southward toward the St. Lawrence River through eastern downtown Montreal, beginning at the landmark La Fontaine Park. According to the city, the street has borne Gen. Amherst's name since "before 1817."

Native groups cheered the name change. Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, said Gen. Amherst doesn't deserve his place on a Canadian street. "Knowing history and the reputation of this man, and what he did to my people, it's logical for me to remove his name and replace it," Mr. Picard said in an interview.

Lord Jeffery Amherst commanded British forces in North America and is considered the architect of Britain's successful campaign to conquer New France during the Seven Years' War. His capture of Montreal marked the end of French rule in Canada.

But his legacy has long been shadowed by his regard for native people.

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Gen. Amherst's support for making native people sick by deliberately spreading smallpox is supported by historical evidence. In a 1763 letter to subordinate Henry Bouquet, Gen. Amherst wrote: "Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."

He added in another missive: "You will do well to try to [infect] the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."

While historians agreed that Gen. Amherst offers unpalatable views about native peoples, they question whether the writings of a man during military conflicts more than 250 years ago should be judged by current standards.

"I don't like the word racist, but if I wanted to use it, I would apply it to him," said Denis Vaugeois, a prolific historian, former Parti Québécois cabinet minister, and publisher who has featured Gen. Amherst in several books. Still, Mr. Vaugeois said he didn't favour removing Gen. Amherst's name from Montreal's landscape. "Amherst is an important part of history. Too bad if he evokes odious things. We shouldn't shed the memory of odious people. We can't rewrite history, we have to try to understand it."

Other historians say there is no evidence that Gen. Amherst's views were ever carried out and that any infected blankets ever reached native peoples.

"What Amherst said was despicable, but he did not kill one Indian by smallpox despite everything that has been said," says Philip Ranlet, a historian who has written on smallpox in early U.S. history.

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"Everybody can condemn the words and sentiments [he expressed]," said Prof. Ranlet, an adjunct associate professor at Hunter College in New York. "But there's no evidence he had any impact at all on the Indians, and certainly they did not affect Canadian Indians – they were not the target." The intended targets were natives around Fort Pitt, in modern-day Pittsburgh, Prof. Ranlet said.

Desmond Morton, professor emeritus of Canadian history at McGill University in Montreal, echoed the views of some historians who question whether Gen. Amherst even understood germ theory and could carry it out.

"He was a successful general. Fighting native people was part of his job, when necessary," Prof. Morton said. "He shared like most people in the military the values and attitudes of people in his lifetime. How do you polish that away? History is not full of happiness."

Commentators weighed in that, if the trend toward revisiting historical figures continues, other street names could be equally deserving of removal. Mr. Vaugeois noted that British General James Wolfe, who has a street named for him just east of Amherst Street, razed villages and killed civilians around Quebec City in 1759, which would be considered a war crime under current norms. A TV pundit said that with Quebec's current push for secularism, or laïcité, it would be logical to rename some of the multitudes of streets bearing the imprimatur of saints in Montreal, such as Ste. Catherine Street.

Pressure has grown in recent weeks across the United States and Canada to remove or change names of controversial historic figures. An Ontario teachers' union pushed to remove Sir John A. Macdonald's name from schools because of his implication in the "genocide against Indigenous people."

Even if Gen. Amherst vanishes from a Montreal street, his memory lives on in numerous sites in central and eastern Canada, from Amherst Cove, Nfld., to Amherst Island, Ont.

Mayor Coderre did not say when he would act to change Amherst Street or what would replace it, but suggested it could be the name of a native chief.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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