Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia premier cautions against erasing contentious historical figures

Stephen McNeil says while governments should be sensitive to the concerns of Indigenous people, Canada can't ignore its history.

Stephen McNeil says Canada can't ignore its history

Premier Stephen McNeil said he hasn't heard of any complaints over the name of Amherst, N.S. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Nova Scotia's premier cautioned against moves to erase Canada's history on Thursday, amid questions about a town in his province named for a contentious British general who Montreal has decided to remove from its streetscape.

The town of Amherst, N.S., was named for Jeffery Amherst, who supported giving smallpox-laced blankets to Indigenous peoples.

On Wednesday, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre vowed to remove the name Amherst from a street in order to move forward on the path of Indigenous reconciliation: "Goodbye Jeffery Amherst," he said, calling him a "stain on our history."

The sign for Amherst street is seen Wednesday, September 13, 2017 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said he has not heard concerns about the town of Amherst being named for the controversial historical figure.

McNeil said Canada can't ignore its history, but governments should be sensitive to the concerns of Indigenous groups and strike a balance whenever possible.

'You can't ignore our own history'

He pointed to his government's decision in 2015 to remove a sign for the Cornwallis River near an Indigenous community. Edward Cornwallis, as governor of Nova Scotia, founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on Mi'kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists.

"People are going to raise the issues that are important to them and that impact them. I think we always let that happen … You can't ignore our own history, though. You can't eliminate it," said McNeil following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.

"Whether you're African Nova Scotian, Mi'kmaq, or Acadian — in this province, there were challenging aspects of our history. But we can't ignore those either. We have to ensure they're part of our ongoing educational lessons that we teach in this generation."

Mi'kmaq activist Rebecca Thomas — who successfully prodded Halifax to rethink how it honours Cornwallis — said she would like to see Amherst, N.S., change its name, but recognized there may be an unwillingness to do that.

She said more education would ensure the public is aware of the entire history of the town's namesake.

"I think it's paramount that the town also make it very clear the historical intents of Gen. Amherst," said Thomas, who is Halifax's poet laureate.

"If you're not going to rename the town you could have counter-pieces. Perhaps you name a street for a noble Mi'kmaq person, or have other kind of dedications and commemorations to Mi'kmaq people from the community."

No concerns in Amherst, says town CAO

Amherst CAO Greg Herrett said Thursday the town had not heard any concerns about its name.

"It has not been a discussion topic at council, in my recollection, and I've been here almost 20 years, and it's not currently on council's agenda. Certainly if a citizen was to write to us or a councillor was to bring it forward, it would be added to the agenda for discussion," said Herrett in a phone interview.

"At some point in time I suppose it may be an issue to be discussed at the political level."

Jeffery Amherst supported giving smallpox-laced blankets to Indigenous peoples. (Thomas Gainsborough/National Portrait Gallery)

Amherst, born in England in 1717, was made commander in chief of North America and is credited with conquering Canada and defeating the French.

French rule on the continent was effectively over after Amherst's army forced the capitulation of Montreal on Sept. 8, 1760.

Amherst also supported killing Indigenous people by giving them smallpox-laced blankets.

Amherstburg, Ont., is also named for him.

Debate on controversial namesakes

Whether to remove the name Amherst has been an ongoing debate in Canada for some time, a discussion which also reflects a larger debate in North America on what to do about symbols commemorating controversial figures.

Last April, a member of the Mi'kmaq Nation traditional government called on Parks Canada to rename the Port-la-Joye— Fort Amherst historical site in Prince Edward Island.

In August, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario voted to ask school boards across the province to remove the name of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, from schools. The teachers suggested he was responsible for many government policies, including the residential school system.

Others point to the fact Macdonald was ahead of his time with regard to his opinions toward Indigenous communities and argue he and others shouldn't be judged through a 2017 lens.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Macdonald's name wouldn't be changed on anything within federal jurisdiction.

In the United States, statues and other markers remembering Confederate and other pro-slavery figures have been the subject of protests, heated debate and violence.

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