News / Canada

P.E.I. park honours general who wanted aboriginals killed, Mi'kmaq leader says

Mi'kmaq leader John Joe Sark is shown in a handout photo. He has written to the federal government asking that the name of the Port-la-Joye - Fort Amherst national historic site near Charlottetown, P.E.I., be changed. Sark says the name honours General Jeffery Amherst, a British military commander in the 1700s who supported using blankets infected with small pox to kill aboriginal people.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Mi'kmaq leader John Joe Sark is shown in a handout photo. He has written to the federal government asking that the name of the Port-la-Joye - Fort Amherst national historic site near Charlottetown, P.E.I., be changed. Sark says the name honours General Jeffery Amherst, a British military commander in the 1700s who supported using blankets infected with small pox to kill aboriginal people.

CHARLOTTETOWN — It's a "grave insult" that a national park in Prince Edward Island still bears the name of a military general who wanted to kill aboriginal people with smallpox, says a Mi'kmaq leader.

John Joe Sark, a member of the Mi'kmaq Nation traditional government, says the name of 18th-century British military commander Jeffery Amherst should be removed from the Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst historic site near Charlottetown.

"Why should they name any public place after a barbarian and a tyrant that this guy was?" Sark said Monday from Johnstons River, P.E.I.

"He may be a hero to the colonial government or the Settlers' Society or whatever, but he's no hero to the Mi'kmaq people."

He has written to the federal government in a bid that adds fuel to an ongoing debate about how historic figures are honoured across Canada and the United States.  

In a letter dated Jan. 29 to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Sark makes his case for changing the park's name to reflect how Mi'kmaq lived in the region long before and ever since European settlers.

"His name is a grave insult to the Mi'kmaq people of Prince Edward Island, the Atlantic region and to the rest of the aboriginal people in Canada," it says. "General Jeffery Amherst's ultimate goal was to exterminate the Mi'kmaq and other aboriginal peoples of North America."

Sark said he has so far received no answer from McKenna's office. He was part of a similar campaign in 2008 to urge the former federal Conservative government to change the name. Parks Canada officials at the time declined, saying they wanted a "balanced history," Sark said.

"We're not trying to re-write history, but we want to write the true history. What you read in ... books is not everything. They leave out all this stuff of how cruel and how barbaric these guys were."

An emailed statement from McKenna's office said the minister was aware of Sark's letter and would review the request.

An emailed statement from Parks Canada said the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, an advisory body to Parks Canada, considered a request to remove Amherst's name from the park in July 2009 and ultimately recommended against it.

However, the statement said Parks Canada staff have continued to "engage with the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. and the Mi'kmaq community for interpretation and special events at the site."

 "Parks Canada is committed to working respectfully with First Nations and honouring their contributions to Canada's protected places," reads the statement.

"The HSMBC would review and give their recommendation on any new proposals to change the name of Port-la-Joye / Fort Amherst National Historic Site of Canada."

Amherst, an officer who rose up the ranks of the British Army in the mid-1700s, is considered a key engineer of British victories in the Seven Years' War for control of New France territories in North America. Several places in the U.S. and Canada, such as Amherstburg, Ont., bear his name.

Amherst College in Massachusetts said last month the British military commander would no longer appear in school communications or as an unofficial mascot. Lord Jeff — as he was known around campus — was increasingly seen as an oppressive figure who supported using blankets infected with smallpox to kill aboriginal people.

That announcement followed a flare-up in Nova Scotia in December over a statue of Edward Cornwallis in a Halifax park. A plaque notes that Cornwallis founded the city in the 1700s but fails to mention a scalping proclamation he offered against the Mi'kmaq. It promised "a reward of ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken or killed, to be paid upon producing such Savage taken or his scalp."

Some historians caution against vilifying actions out of historical context but others have called for more diverse depictions, especially in public spaces.

— By Sue Bailey in St. John's, NL