What’s in a name? More than you might think

The Amherst News - - OPINION -

It wasn’t long af­ter the Seven Years War that the in­hab­i­tants of what would be­come Amherst de­cided to name their com­mu­nity af­ter a Bri­tish war hero. Gen. Jef­frey Amherst led the Bri­tish forces in North Amer­ica dur­ing the war against the French.

At the time, he was the big­gest war hero on the con­ti­nent. Not sur­pris­ingly, his name was given to com­mu­ni­ties, streets, col­leges and build­ings in sev­eral colonies in­clud­ing Nova Sco­tia, Prince Ed­ward Is­land, Que­bec, On­tario, Maine and Mas­sachusetts.

His­tory, how­ever, has not been kind to Lord Jef­frey. As today’s gen­er­a­tion ques­tions the records of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures like Ed­ward Corn­wal­lis, Gover­nor Charles Lawrence and even Canada’s first prime min­is­ter Sir John A. Macdon­ald we are left won­der if should re­vere these men or re­vile them. Do they de­serve the hon­ours that have been be­stowed upon them.

Amherst’s record is now tar­nished and there’s grow­ing pres­sure to re­move his name from those items for which he’s hon­oured. Many in the Indige­nous com­mu­nity equate his name with geno­cide or bi­o­log­i­cal or germ war­fare be­cause there’s ev­i­dence he or­dered his un­der­lings to give blan­kets in­fected with small­pox and other dis­eases to the Indige­nous peo­ples his forces came into con­tact with.

Last year, the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Amherst de­cided to drop the name of its mas­cot Lord Amherst while more re­cently Mon­treal Mayor De­nis Coderre pledged to re­name a street that bears his name. There has also been pres­sure di­rected at Parks Canada to change the name of Fort Amherst near the mouth of Char­lot­te­town har­bour.

Ear­lier this week, Amherst’s town coun­cil de­cided it will not change the name of the town. Dr. David Ko­gon, the town’s mayor, said it would be im­prac­ti­cal to change the name of a com­mu­nity that has been known as Amherst since the late 1700s and he fears it would bring about a huge fi­nan­cial bur­den for the town and for its busi­ness com­mu­nity.

Say­ing that, how­ever, the mayor is quick to point out today’s Amherst does not con­done what was done by its name­sake in wartime two-and-a-half cen­turies ago. This is a start on the road to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Lord Amherst prob­a­bly never stepped foot in this com­mu­nity, but that doesn’t mean we should ig­nore or sweep the de­bate un­der the rug. Amherst as a com­mu­nity needs to show how open it is Indige­nous and other cul­tures.

Chang­ing the name is not the an­swer, but it would be fit­ting for Amherst to cel­e­brate the town’s abo­rig­i­nal her­itage in a larger way than the an­nual pow wow it co-hosts with Indige­nous Af­fairs’ re­gional of­fice. It could look to re­name one or more streets in hon­our of a na­tive leader and work to ed­u­cate peo­ple of the Indige­nous her­itage here while cel­e­brat­ing Amherst’s diversity as ex­em­pli­fied by the Ro­tary club’s Syr­ian refugee project and this past sum­mer’s Pride Pa­rade.

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