Controversial historical figures are tied up in our towns, streets and rivers – a testament to how highly these figures were regarded by early European populations.
But we have to acknowledge, changing a name doesn’t change history. The best we can do is be aware of our history and hope the knowledge helps us avoid pitfalls in the future.
The Town of Amherst, N.S., found itself contemplating such a move, and made a decision this week that is not surprising. It will keep its name, despite increasing discussion in recent years about the kind of tactics the British general Jeffrey Amherst used in subduing the native population in the Maritimes.
Following a committee of the whole meeting earlier this week, Mayor Dr. David Kogon said changing the name is not something they would pursue. That’s understandable, despite the perceived evil deeds of the namesake. The town has had the name for a long time. It’s a brand, as Kogon explained. He added that the decision does not at all mean the council approves of the activities of Amherst or other members of the British forces as they strove to supplant the Indigenous people.
Canadians who have long taken their population makeup and distribution for granted have been learning more in recent years about how some of the shift took place, beginning more than two centuries ago.
Amherst, for example, as commanding general for British forces in North America, used such tactics as giving smallpox-infected blankets to natives as one means to hasten their demise.
Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis is another such figure to have come under much-publicized fire in recent years over similar accounts alleging genocide.
These revelations should indeed be common knowledge. When we study history, people should be aware of the mindset and strategies used by nations bent upon expansion into new-to-them, but already inhabited territories.
But fortunately, amid the controversy, we’re hearing discussion that has included thoughts from modern-day Indigenous leaders and teachers. We’re not going to change history by relabelling places and features. But do indeed provide the full story – in textbooks, on plaques or in interpretive literature – the lengths that invading forces went to in trying to carve out territory for themselves and waves of European immigrants.
We can think of instances in the past when place names were changed because of the whims of historical perception. Leaders in what was then Berlin, Ont., found that uncomfortable at the onset of the First World War and changed it to Kitchener. Looking at it now, that seems like an almost arbitrary approach.
In the current case of names found in the Maritimes that many find offensive, another thought has been presented by Indigenous leaders. During a time of Truth and Reconciliation discussion in this country, an abrupt pulling down of statues, or renaming of features could be construed as less-than conciliatory.
Rather than trying to cover up historical events that many now find shameful, we need to enrich our accounts of the past with a more full story. That has to include – and start with – the original founders of the region, celebrating their development, accomplishments, their culture, their legends and philosophies.