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EDITORIAL: What’s in a name? More than you might think

It wasn’t long after the Seven Years War that the inhabitants of what would become Amherst decided to name their community after a British war hero. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst led the British forces in North America during the war against the French.  

At the time, he was the biggest war hero on the continent. Not surprisingly, his name was given to communities, streets, colleges and buildings in several colonies including Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Ontario, Maine and Massachusetts.
History, however, has not been kind to Lord Jeffrey. As today’s generation questions the records of historical figures like Edward Cornwallis, Governor Charles Lawrence and even Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald we are left wonder if should revere these men or revile them. Do they deserve the honours that have been bestowed upon them.
Amherst’s record is now tarnished and there’s growing pressure to remove his name from those items for which he’s honoured. Many in the Indigenous community equate his name with genocide or biological or germ warfare because there’s evidence he ordered his underlings to give blankets infected with smallpox and other diseases to the Indigenous peoples his forces came into contact with.
Last year, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst decided to drop the name of its mascot Lord Amherst while more recently Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre pledged to rename a street that bears his name. There has also been pressure directed at Parks Canada to change the name of Fort Amherst near the mouth of Charlottetown harbour.
Earlier this week, Amherst’s town council decided it will not change the name of the town. Dr. David Kogon, the town’s mayor, said it would be impractical to change the name of a community that has been known as Amherst since the late 1700s and he fears it would bring about a huge financial burden for the town and for its business community.
Saying that, however, the mayor is quick to point out today’s Amherst does not condone what was done by its namesake in wartime two-and-a-half centuries ago. This is a start on the road to reconciliation.
Lord Amherst probably never stepped foot in this community, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore or sweep the debate under the rug. Amherst as a community needs to show how open it is Indigenous and other cultures.
Changing the name is not the answer, but it would be fitting for Amherst to celebrate the town’s aboriginal heritage in a larger way than the annual pow wow it co-hosts with Indigenous Affairs’ regional office. It could look to rename one or more streets in honour of a native leader and work to educate people of the Indigenous heritage here while celebrating Amherst’s diversity as exemplified by the Rotary club’s Syrian refugee project and this past summer’s Pride Parade.

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