Out in the Open

Is erasing Lord Jeffrey Amherst's name a way to expose hidden history?

Keptin John Joe Sark wants the name Amherst erased from PEI’s historic site, Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst.
John Joe Sark, Keptin of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council, says he thinks the fight to change the name of Port La-Joye-Fort Amherst is worth the effort. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Update | July 29, 2018: Since this story was originally published, the P.E.I. government announced it's changing the name of the national historic site to Skmaqn–Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst. The addition of "Skmaqn" -- a Mi'kmaq word that means "the waiting place" -- was proposed by the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. Keptin John Joe Sark still strongly disagrees with the approach, repeating what he told us, that simply adding a Mi'kmaq name would be a grave insult.

"You know, to have a place in Mi'kmaq  territory named after this genocidal tyrant would be the equivalent to naming a park in Jerusalem after Hitler," says Keptin John Joe Sark of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council in P.E.I.

John is referring to Lord Jeffrey Amherst and John's 10 year fight to remove Amherst's name from the National Historic site in P.E.i., Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst.

Historically, as a British General, Lord Jeffrey Amherst was a decorated war hero and a key figure behind the end of French rule in Canada.

Today, Amherst is at the centre of debates across North America about how to remember people once revered and now considered controversial.
Keptin John Joe Sark made the request to have the name changed to remove reference to General Jeffery Amherst. (CBC)

Part of the controversy surrounding Lord Amherst is over letters he wrote in the 1760s, promoting biological warfare against Indigenous people. 

Some text of Amherst's letters include:

"Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?"

"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."

"Well, you wonder whether he was speaking about human beings or beasts," says John.

John believes Amherst's name should go "for the very reason of his desire to get rid of us, not our name, but get rid of us. Period."

We reached out to Parks Canada, the federal body that oversees historic sites, about Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst.

Parks Canada says it isn't getting rid of Amherst's name. The federal body also says it isn't commemorating Amherst or his actions but marking the historical significance of the site itself, which was named Fort Amherst at the time.

In the past, the site served as the seat of French and then British colonial governments. It was named Port-la-Joye when the French ruled, and then Fort Amherst when the British took over. 

You can read Park Canada's full statement below.

Parks Canada also says it is meetings with members of the Mi'kmaq community to see if a Mi'kmaq name can be added to the naming of the site.

"To add a Mi'kmaq name while they still have Amherst's name would be a grave insult to our people and also to our ancestors," says John.

John doesn't believe Canada should be commemorating the Amherst name at all, period.

"We're not trying to rewrite history. We're trying to expose the real history of what these tyrants are like," he says. 

Full Parks Canada statement to Out in the Open

Parks Canada's response
Parks Canada is committed to working respectfully with Indigenous Peoples and honouring their contributions to Canada's protected places. 

Parks Canada is meeting with the Société Thomas D'Aquin and the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of PEI this week to discuss matters related to the name of Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site and other areas of joint interest.
The Government of Canada remains open to having meaningful discussions on how we can move forward in a way that is respectful and in support of advancing reconciliation. 

Parks Canada is committed to a system of national heritage places that recognizes Indigenous traditions, cultures and contributions to Canada. The Agency recognizes the invaluable contributions of Indigenous People to our work – from establishing and conserving heritage places to enhancing visitor experience by sharing stories and cultural traditions.
For additional context:
The Government of Canada commemorates persons, places and events of national historic significance on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). In 2016, a request was made to remove Fort Amherst from the name of the national historic site. Parks Canada referred the request to the HSMBC for consideration.

The HSMBC discussed the request at length and could not recommend that the historic place name of Fort Amherst be removed from the official name of the national historic site because the designation is based, in part, on the fact that the location served as a seat of government for the British from 1758 to 1768, and Fort Amherst is the site's historic name for this period. Additionally, the British period is associated with the deportation of the Acadians in 1758.
It is important to note that the site does not commemorate or celebrate the actions of Jeffery Amherst. The historic place names attached to the site commemorate the fact that the site served as the seat of government for French and then British colonial governments, and, at the time, it was known as "Port-la-Joye" and then "Fort Amherst".
The HSMBC recommended that Parks Canada work with the Mi'kmaq of Prince Edward Island to determine if there is a historic Mi'kmaw place name for the site that could be added to the site's official name, thereby helping to better communicate the layers of history present there.

Parks Canada engages the PEI Mi'kmaw governments - the Lennox Island First Nation and the Abegweit First Nation - through their jointly-owned organization, the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of PEI, on matters of formal consultation and areas of joint interest. Through the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of PEI, the PEI First Nations regularly work in partnership with Parks Canada to achieve their mutual goals.

In addition, Parks Canada has expanded interpretation at Port-La-Joye-Fort Amherst National Historic Site to include a broader story with messaging around the Mi'kmaw history of the site. This includes the installation of new interpretive panels which explain the many layers of history found at the site, including Mi'kmaw history, as well as an updated site brochure and guided walk script telling a broader story and delving into the Mi'kmaq and French/Acadian relationship at the site.

Parks Canada and The Mi'kmaq Confederacy are also very pleased to have partnered once again this summer at Port-la-Joye - Fort Amherst National Historic Site, for a project that brings to life the Mi'kmaw history of the site. Members of the Island's Mi'kmaq community have worked with a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Elder to construct a traditional Mi'kmaq birch bark wigwam on the site. The wigwam site has also served as the venue for the presentation of interactive Mi'kmaw history and culture programs. For additional information, please consult the news release: https://www.canada.ca/en/parks-canada/news/2017/07/mi_kmaq_history_comingaliveatport-la-joyefort-amherstnationalhis.html?=undefined&wbdisable=true

This story originally aired on November 19, 2017. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Rewriting History".