Renaming ‘Amherst Street’ was unjustified posturing
By Frédéric Bastien
Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2020 edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 21-23.
DURING THE SPRING of 2017, Marc Miller, until then the relatively obscure Member of Parliament for Ville-Marie-Le Sud-Ouest-Île-des-Sœurs, and a close friend of Justin Trudeau since their schooldays, became a star on social media the world over when he delivered a speech in Mohawk in the House of Commons. Mohawk is, he said, the language of the riding he represents, downtown Montreal, “traditional Mohawk land.” Denis Coderre for his part, former federal minister and then mayor, declared on numerous occasions that the city was built on “non-ceded” Mohawk territory. There were also columnists repeating the new motto ad nauseam. The best example is certainly Cathy Wong, writing in le Devoir at the time, before running for office and becoming speaker of city council. The same spring Miller was speaking in Mohawk in Ottawa, she wrote that the role of the natives had been neglected in the history of the city. “They helped the French and shared their know-how…they undoubtedly built Montreal before 1642 … how come is it that they are not recognized as founders of the city just like Jeanne Mance and Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve? As we celebrate the 375th anniversary of the city, we need to remedy this situation… Tanite nita tshipa tshi uni-tshissitutatan (where are you, I do not want to forget you).” There are so many people who said in the last few years that Montreal is built on Mohawk land that it would take too long to name them all.
The problem is that it is false. The Mohawks’ original land was located in what is today upstate New York, in the Albany area, on the banks of the Mohawk River. Since they helped the British during that conflict, they could not stay safely in the newly independent American Republic and thus fled to our country. Certain Mohawks who converted to Christianity however had arrived before. Their traditionalist fellow tribesmen did not like the presence of Christians among them and, at the invitation of Louis XIV, the converts migrated to territories close to Montreal, but not on the island itself. These two separate movements of population constitute the origin of Kahnawake on the South Shore of Montreal, of Kanesatake on the banks of the Ottawa River, and of Akwesasne, straddling Ontario, Quebec and the United States. This is the accepted view of historians and anthropologists alike.
To my knowledge, there is not one specialist in Quebec who supports the idea that the Mohawks have some ancestral rights on the island of Montreal because their ancestors occupied this territory. There were some Iroquois living in Hochelaga when Jacques Cartier explored the area in 1535. But when de Maisonneuve established a colony on the island in 1642, there were no natives living there. For some unknown reason, the Iroquois had disappeared some time before the settlement was established. In 2016 and 2017 some native artefacts were excavated on Peel Street by archeologists and testified of an Iroquois presence, not a Mohawk one. There are no records whatsoever of their presence in Montreal — or anywhere else along the St. Lawrence valley.
The interesting question therefore is why so much falsehood is being repeated on the topic? The most likely explanation is political correctness. With the multicultural pseudo-religion that has taken hold of Canada and, to a lesser extent, Quebec, the bien-pensants derive meaning by expressing remorse for real or imaginary injustices of the past. It has become a staple of moral superiority. That is why it is fashionable all over the country for politicians and other public figures to claim, when they give a speech, that the territory where the event is taking place used to belong to a certain First Nation, even where the claim is highly dubious.
All this makes for fine political posturing but the problem in Montreal is that the territory did not really belong to anyone in the first place. Politicians could not make any verifiable claims regarding the natives in the area. So instead they settled for the next best thing: natives who were at least close to Montreal, the Mohawks living across the river on the South Shore. Since 2014 the city has been collaborating with the tribe on various archeological projects. The idea was to integrate them so that they can “claim back their heritage.” Along the same line, a white pine was added to the flag of the city (See “Safe-Guarding Traditions,” The Dorchester Review, Vol. 7, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2017) to commemorate the natives, alongside the French, the English, the Scots and the Irish — even if there were no natives in the first place when the city was established and they were not present in great numbers afterwards.
‘Goodbye Mr. Amherst’
APOLOGIES FOR PAST“mistakes” reached a new level in the fall of 2017. Mayor Coderre apparently thought that it was not enough to tell his fellow Montrealers — falsely — that the city’s territory belonged to the Mohawks. So he announced with great fanfare that the founder of British Montreal, Jeffery Amherst, would no longer have a street named after him. It was he after who “wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples. Goodbye Mr. Amherst, out,” Coderre pontificated, promising in front of a jubilant crowd that he would take care of this personally.
It was during the 19th century that the famous historian Francis Parkman discovered that the English general had made the “detestable suggestion” of waging biological warfare against the natives. The “stratagem,” proposed in a dispatch to Col. Henry Bouquet, a Swiss in service with the British forces in America, was to give them blankets contaminated with smallpox. The story became famous and, over the years, it was blown out of proportion, according to historian Adrienne Mayer, a specialist of American folklore.
The extent of the myth starts with the fact that the plan was never carried out. As Parkman himself writes, “There is no direct evidence that Bouquet carried into effect the shameful plan of infecting the Indians” (The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War After the Conquest of Canada, p. 41). Contaminating the natives the way Amherst envisaged would have been very complicated and dangerous for the one carrying out the attack. How would British troops have delivered the blankets without infecting themselves? Also overlooked is any motivation Amherst may have had for such an attack. He is known to have hated “this execrable race” of natives because of the way they fought. Their inhumanity towards opponents and captives, “the terror of the tomahawk” (Parkman, p. 42) and the resulting crowds of widows, orphans and refugees, justified inhumane vengeance.
One of the most famous battles was the attack mounted by General Montcalm and his native allies against Fort William Henry on Lake George in 1757. Following the surrender of the British garrison, the Indians attacked, tortured and killed British soldiers and their families. Estimates of the number of victims range from a few hundred to one thousand, including pregnant women with their babies taken out of their womb, and children whose heads were smashed on trees. Intoxicated by alcohol, frustrated because they did not get the spoils of war they had been promised, the natives took revenge on the defenseless English even as Montcalm and other French officers tried to prevent them from doing so.
The event was immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. And it was a major influence on Amherst. Even if his desire to seek vengeance by means of germ warfare was despicable, even by the standards of the 18th century, we need to bear in mind his motivation when we try to understand what happened. He had good reasons for hating the Indians. As Parkman put it, “His just indignation at the atrocities which had caused so much misery is his best apology.”
In any event, no matter what we think of the former English officer, Amherst’s memory was not honoured because of his having considered using biological warfare. The street was named after him because he laid the foundations of Quebec’s institutions that would serve the English community in the city following the Conquest of 1760.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, THE name chosen to replace Amherst has absolutely nothing to do with the history of the city. Valérie Plante, Coderre’s successor, chose the Mohawk word Atateken, which means “brothers and sisters.” The choice was based on politics and ideology, not history. Had Plante wanted to commemorate something that really happened in the past, Plante could have chosen “La Grande paix de Montréal,” signed in 1701. That treaty between the French and Indians inaugurated a long period of peace, something unique in the history of the Americas. But this would have been the wrong message. The politically correct one is to cast Europeans and their descendants as villains and the natives as victims. To remind people that First Nations after 1701 got along well with the French would be politically incorrect — even if it is quite true. To tell it like it was might also annoy politically-motivated Mohawks, the one First Nations group selected by the authorities to help them play the artificial role of redeeming Montreal of their past imaginary sins against First Nations. It is all about creating a fake “usable past” that fits the guilt-based stereotype of settler-native relations.
* Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2020 edition of THE DORCHESTER REVIEW, Vol 10, No. 1, pp 21-23.