Did you know that this past January 11 was Sir John A. MacDonald Day? Probably not, and even if you heard anything about our first prime minister lately, it might not have been something good: just weeks before, his statue, erected in Place du Canada, had been defaced by vandals. Regardless of the motives for the action, which came in a context of historical revisionism, the attack on the statue is regrettable: the monument to Sir John A. is one of the finest works of public art in the city. However, the question goes beyond this act: the historical role of this most famous Father of Confederation has been put into question in light of the terrible damage inflicted by the policy of putting young aboriginals in residential schools, apparently with the purpose of “civilizing them” and in the process, making them forget their culture and ancestry. Although MacDonald himself was not the proponent of this policy, it was under his tenure as Prime Minister that it was introduced.
Last August, the City of Victoria, B.C., announced the removal of a MacDonald’s statue from the front of city hall. In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante dismissed the suggestion to have the statue removed, but she announced last year and reiterated just a few days ago, her intention to work with the indigenous community to implement new policies of reconciliation. In particular by forming an ad-hoc committee which should look for a new name for Amherst Street, a far more prominent historical irritant. This committee will be composed entirely by indigenous people.
Although the involvement of Jeffrey Amherst with a kind of biological warfare against the indigenous people was well known, it has been only now that his genocidal role has been fully exposed and condemned. Historical records document that Amherst conspired with another officer –Colonel Henry Bouquet– to distribute blankets infected with smallpox among the indigenous tribes that were battling the British during the Pontiac’s War (1763-1764). Actually, this type of warfare was not invented by Amherst, two centuries earlier it had been used by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in his war of conquest against the Aztecs in what is now Mexico. Cortes introduced an infected slave among the natives thus spreading the disease against which the Aztecs, and in general all aboriginals in the New World, had no defences. Millions of aboriginals died as a consequence of viruses introduced by the European colonizers, sometimes unwillingly, sometimes deliberately, as Cortes and then Amherst did.
Alexis Diomedi in his work “The biological warfare in the conquest of the new world” wrote: “Five centuries ago the European invaders arrived in the New World. They carried with them what turned out to be their main allies in the conquest of the continent: smallpox, measles and influenza viruses. In an attempt to recompose the process of dissemination of such diseases, a systematic review of the biomedical and historical literature was performed, to investigate how the Spaniards first, and the British later, used mainly smallpox to undertake a biological warfare against the American Indians, which eventually meant the biggest population catastrophe that America has never suffered in all its history.”
Not surprisingly, with this background, Amherst will soon be gone from Montreal’s street index. Instead, the downtown east-end street will carry an indigenous name. While demotion is the fate for Amherst, Sir John A.’s statue will likely stay. The Mayor is right in this case, after all, MacDonald was not the direct proponent of the notorious residential schools (in fact this was an imperial policy: aboriginals in Australia were subjected to similar treatment). On the other hand, it is a well-known fact that notable historical figures have committed some disgraceful acts: despite speaking against slavery, Thomas Jefferson owned about 600 slaves (he released six), Churchill was instrumental in the creation of concentration camps in South Africa, and so on with many others now honoured with streets named after them. Montreal must emphasize reconciliation with the first nations and demote those who committed crimes against them, but each case must be carefully examined. After all, two wrongs don’t make a right.
By: Sergio Martinez – firstname.lastname@example.org