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'Goodbye, Mr. Amherst': Why a decorated British general was stripped of his Montreal street

In his characteristically blunt style, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre didn't mince words when explaining why Amherst Street required a name change. "I don't think we should celebrate someone who wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples," he said.

Jeffery Amherst, an advocate of biological warfare, was a revered general during Seven Years' War

Jeffery Amherst was a British general during the Seven Years' War in New France. (Thomas Gainsborough/National Portrait Gallery)

In his characteristically blunt style, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre didn't mince words when explaining why Amherst Street required a name change. 

Jeffery Amherst, a revered British general who served during the Seven Years' War in New France and modern day Nova Scotia, "wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples," Coderre said.

"Goodbye, Mr. Amherst," Coderre said Wednesday, the same day he announced the addition of an Iroquois symbol to the city's flag. 

So, who exactly was Jeffery Amherst?

His list of honours is long: he held the offices of Governor of Quebec as well as Crown Governor of Virginia and was later named a Lord.

Under his command, British forces captured the cities of Louisbourg, Quebec City and Montreal, as well as several major fortresses.

Numerous schools, towns and streets are named for him, in both Canada and the United States.

But scholars have long debated Amherst's actions during his service. 

'Extirpate this execrable race'

What is clear is that in a letter penned in 1763, he advocated the use of biological warfare, through smallpox blankets, to kill Indigenous peoples.

"Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?" he wrote in a letter to Col. Henry Bouquet, a fellow officer in the British Army.

In another letter the same year, he repeated the idea: "You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."

Amherst Street, which runs through downtown Montreal, will be renamed, Mayor Denis Coderre announced Wednesday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Gavin Taylor, a specialist in colonial North America who works at Concordia University, said those words clearly demonstrate "genocidal intent."

"Was it actually put into place? That's less clear," Taylor, a senior lecturer in the history department, said in an interview. 

British forces may have already used the tactic, in places like Fort Pitt, Pa., before the letter was sent, Taylor said.

Regardless, the decision to remove Amherst's name was widely praised by those at Wednesday's announcement.

"The bottom line is this: I think it's a stain on our history and we should pull it off," said Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador.

Michael Rice, a history and Indigenous studies specialist with Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, called it "one of the best decisions that Coderre has made, because [Amherst] was universally hated by native people at the time."

From mascots to historic sites

Montreal's decision to strip Amherst of his street comes amid a broader debate about how historical figures should be remembered. 

An Ontario teachers' union recently called for the removal of John A. Macdonald's name from schools in the province. 

The controversy over Amherst is playing out in other parts of Canada and the United States as well.

An artist's depiction of the funeral of Chief Kondiaronk in 1701. One suggestion was to rename the street after Kondiaronk. (Charles Vinh, private collection/Centre d'histoire de Montréal)

The general has been, for years, the unofficial mascot of Amherst College in Massachusetts but, after pressure from students, the school adopted a mammoth as its official mascot last April.

In Prince Edward Island, too, Mi'kmaq elders have called for Amherst's name to be removed from historic sites.

Coderre said Amherst Street, which runs north-south through the eastern section of downtown Montreal, will likely be renamed after an Indigenous person who helped shape the city.

Kahnawake Mohawk Council Chief Christine Zachary-Deom suggested it be named after Huron Chief Kondiaronk, whose name currently graces a lookout on Mount Royal. 

He was a key figure in the 1701 treaty called the Great Peace of Montreal.

With files from Ainslie Maclellan