What's in a name? Questions raised about Amherstburg namesake's history with Indigenous people

For many General Jeffrey Amherst is a white-wigged British officer whose image is a crucial part of Amherstburg's history, to others he was a callous military leader who advocated the use of disease-laced blankets to kill Canada's Indigenous peoples.

General Jeffery Amherst advocated the use of small-pox laced blankets to kill Indigenous people

The Town of Amherstburg is named for General Jeffrey Amherst, who advocated for the use of small-pox laced blankets as a way to kill Indigenous people. (CBC News)

Do you know who General Jeffrey Amherst was?

For many he's just some white-wigged British officer symbolizing the town's rich history pre-Confederation. For others, he's a reminder of a dark past, a military leader who called for the use of disease-laced blankets to kill Canada's Indigenous peoples. 

The southwestern Ontario town's namesake has come under scrutiny, along with other historical figures such as founding father John A. Macdonald, for past statements and actions.

As leader of British forces in North America in 1763, Amherst wrote a letter urging the use of smallpox-laced 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 he advocated trying "every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race."

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

Montreal officials this week announced they were stripping the general's name from a street sign, with Mayor Denis Coderre describing the action as a step towards healing the wounds of Indigenous people.

"If we want reconciliation, I don't think we should celebrate someone who wanted to exterminate Indigenous peoples," he said.

Amherstburg Mayor Aldo DiCarlo said he's only received one complaint about his town's name in recent weeks.

He said the details of Amherst's past came as a surprise, but that the town has much to be proud of in its history, which has spanned more than 200 years. The town played a pivotal role in the War of 1812 and welcomed slaves on the Underground Railroad fleeing bondage and persecution in the United States. 

"To me, that's the Amherstburg I know, not the General we're named after," said DiCarlo.

A 'blantant disregard' for Indigenous people

Valerie Waboose, an assistant law professor from the University of Windsor and member of the Walpole Island First Nation, said the town should start a dialogue with community members about whether they want to be associated with someone who "had such blatant disregard for the Original people of this region."

"The decision is ultimately theirs and one which they have to live with," she added.

University of Windsor law professor Valarie Waboose. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

While Amherst's comments are indeed dark and striking, he wasn't alone in his approach, said Guillaume Teasdale, a history professor at the University of Windsor. 

"It's easy to single out one individual, but there were many people like him with these views of Aboriginal people," he said. "According to research, he was not the only one to promote the use of blankets with disease."

The professor said he and many of his colleagues are still working to understand how controversial characters should be recalled in Canadian history. Some even plan to create entire courses around the issue.

General Amherst school could get new name

General Amherst's name is unescapable in the quaint town of about 21,000. Signs bearing it welcome visitors to what the community's website describes as a "Modern town with an old world charm." The local high school that has educated generations of students is called General Amherst High School.

Public school board spokesperson Scott Scantlebury said even that could change.

Amherstburg Mayor Aldo DiCarlo said the darker details of General Amherst's past were news to him. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

While there has been no official call for a name change, there have been "casual discussions" about it among board members, said Scantlebury. With plans to combine two area high schools in a few years, the general might finally be defeated.

DiCarlo said he's open to any in the community who feel the town's name should change, but added many are still trying to wrap their heads around the connection between Amherst and the hometown they love — it's something he's still working through too.

"The town has a name, but the town itself is the people," he said. "On one hand I'd be torn because we've been that for over 200 years, but at the same time it's more about the people for me than what we call ourselves."

with files from CBC Montreal