John Joe Sark received the Order of Prince Edward Island at a ceremony last autumn at Government House — the Lieutenant Governor’s white, neoclassical mansion on the Charlottetown waterfront, just across the harbour from Fort Amherst. Being so close to Fort Amherst irked him.
Sark, a Keptin of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, was receiving the province’s highest honour, and yet a campaign he had led for almost a decade sat across the water unfinished.
Since 2008, he has been pushing to scrub the name of Jeffery Amherst from the site near Rocky Point. The national historic site has good views of the Charlottetown harbour and visible ruins of an 18th-century British military fort. For Sark, it is a monument to a tyrant.
Amherst was an 18th-century British army officer who conspired to infect Indigenous people with smallpox-laced blankets and “extirpate the execrable race.”
Parks Canada continues to resist Sark’s demands to change the name. Throughout his battle with Parks Canada, the P.E.I. government hasn’t gotten involved — saying the name of the site is a federal government issue. In protest of “their silence,” Sarks gave back his Order of P.E.I. last week — “the medal, the lapel pin, all that junk.”
“I feel lighter. I wouldn’t want that (medal) hanging around my neck,” he told the National Post. “I don’t need any more trinkets from the white man.”
Parks Canada’s historic sites and monuments board considered the request for a second time in September, and decided that it couldn’t change the name because Fort Amherst was the “historic place name,” chosen by the British soldiers who built it.
“It is important to note that the site does not commemorate or celebrate the actions of Jeffery Amherst,” Parks Canada said in an email. “The historic place names attached to the site commemorate the fact that this site served as the seat of government for French and then British colonial governments.”
But by keeping that name more than 250 years later, the government is favouring British history over Mi’kmaq history, Sark said.
“We were here for 10,000 years, so it must have been historic to us, eh?” he said.
The board, however, did suggest adding the historic Mi’kmaq name for the site to the title. (The official title is currently Port-la-Joye—Fort Amherst, reflecting both the English and French names given to the fort in the 18th century.)
“Parks Canada is working in close partnership with the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I., and I will be looking forward to their recommendation,” Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who oversees Parks Canada, said in an emailed statement.
Sark isn’t satisfied with the compromise.
“We look at it as an insult and a disgrace,” he said, “to have a Mi’kmaq name alongside the name of Gen. Amherst.”
After taking Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island, from the French in 1758, Amherst sent a contingent to capture P.E.I. (then known as Isle Saint-Jean). The French surrendered there, and the British established the fort in the harbour and named it after Amherst. They did so, said University of P.E.I. historian Edward MacDonald, not because Amherst “was a humanitarian,” or “because of any particular admiration for his qualities as a person. It was named after him because he was the boss.”
Historians seem to agree that Amherst was racist, though it’s unclear “whether he was more bigoted than the average official of his time,” according to the Dictionary of Canadian biography. In his book on “Pontiac’s War,” an Indigenous uprising in the 1760s, Richard Middleton quotes from Amherst’s correspondence with other British officers. “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?” Amherst wrote in one letter. When an officer suggested infecting blankets with smallpox, Amherst replied: “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.”
“If they don’t change the name,” Sark said, “the Canadian government is complicit in perpetuating the racist attitudes of Amherst and his ilk.”
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