Changing the names of streets has sometimes been the subject of controversy, there is always a political intention behind such action and, as expected, some feel offended by the removal of the honour bestowed to the person after which the street was named, or by the recognition that is now given to someone else. Jean Doré, while Mayor, rechristened Dorchester Blvd. after the separatist leader René Levesque, a move that raised the ire of many. Mayor Denis Coderre removed the name University Ave. from most of the length of that artery to pay tribute to former Premier Robert Bourassa, this time without much protest. However, when former Mayor Gerard Tremblay (does anyone remember him?) tried to give the name of the now forgotten and for many –mediocre– politician, to the iconic Avenue du Parc, a furious community prevented him from perpetrating that urban crime.
However, last week the decision by Mayor Valerie Plante to remove the name Amherst from that street in the east end of downtown was met with a rare case of unanimity approving a change that would erase from the map of Montreal the name of Jeffery Amherst. The British general commanded his country’s forces during the colonial wars in 18th century North America, and during the rebellion led by chief Pontiac (1763-1764), promoted the use of a kind of biological warfare against the indigenous people. “Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them,” wrote Amherst to Colonel Henry Bouquet who later replied expressing his agreement (according to “Jeffrey Amherst and the Smallpox Blankets” published by the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, 2014, and cited by Wikipedia). In all justice, however, the method of infecting the aboriginals with smallpox was first used by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in Mexico, who had introduced an infected slave among the Aztecs two centuries earlier. This action precipitated the fall of the Aztec empire to the Spaniards.
No question then, Amherst, an extreme exponent of European colonial practices, wouldn’t have many defenders today, Amherst Street is gone, welcome Atateken Street. The Mayor announced the new name in the company of the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, and the grand chiefs of the two Mohawks territories in the Montreal area: Joe Norton of Kahnawake and Serge Otsi Simon, of Kanesatake. The new name of the street is taken from the kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language and may be translated as fraternity and an expression of equality between peoples.
“I am moved to see us arrive together to make this gesture. Replacing a Montreal toponym that has been criticized for many years by a unifying name that invites peace and sharing between Aboriginal and non-native cultures, embodies the spirit of Montreal in its reconciliation program” said Mayor Plante during the ceremony. “Now that Amherst St. has a new name the spirit of our people, the spirit of our ancestors can rest in peace,” said Picard for his part.
For Montreal, it is a new page that has turned in a long process aimed at reconciliation while it is also a reminder that the city stands on unceded territory (“Aboriginal Title has neither been surrendered nor acquired by the Crown” according to the First Nations’ definition). But on that, Chief Simon was also clear: “(This) doesn’t mean we’re going to come in here and kick you out. It means you finally recognize that where you’re standing isn’t necessarily all yours – that it came at a price.”
Feature image: Mayor Valerie Plante and representatives from the First Nations during the renaming of Amherst St. ceremony