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Native leader says P.E.I. park needs name changed

Updated Sat. Aug. 16 2008 5:35 AM ET

CTV News

Deborah Mensah-Bonsu, Special to CTV.ca

An Aboriginal leader says it's time to change the name of a national historic site that he says honours a British general who tried to wipe out the native population in the Maritimes.

John Joe Sark, a spiritual leader of the Mi'kmaq people in Prince Edward Island, says Fort Amherst's namesake is a "terrible blotch on Canada."

"General Amherst was the guy that had blankets inoculated with small pox and had them given to Native people as gifts," Sark told CTV.ca in a telephone interview from P.E.I.

The British named Fort Amherst, which lies across the bay from Charlottetown, after military officer Jeffrey Amherst, who served in the 18th century.

Parks Canada said it does not have any comprehensive information about what happened between General Amherst and the Mi'kmaq in the 1700s.

"When it comes to linking specifically General Amherst to the Mi'kmaq we don't have any clear documentation that things like germ warfare were carried out," Jewel Cunningham, superintendent for Parks Canada P.E.I. told CTV.ca in a telephone interview from P.E.I.

She added that Parks Canada has been working with the Mi'kmaq Confederacy of P.E.I. to interpret Mi'kmaq culture and history at the site.

Sark is not the only one who believes it's time for a name change.

'Phony history'?

Author and Mi'kmaq advocate Daniel N. Paul said he supports Sark's efforts.

"Let's put it this way, in the future I don't think there should ever be anything named after people who committed what can be described as crimes against humanity. I don't see why this should be any exception," Paul told CTV.ca in a telephone interview from Halifax, N.S.

"There's so much that could be changed."

Paul has started a petition on his website to change the names of public places in Nova Scotia named after colonial governor Edward Cornwallis, who he says also participated in the ethnic cleansing of the Mi'kmaq population.

"He's part of history, so is Amherst. Nothing says that you have to idolize them...Phony history is not in the best interest of anybody," he said.

"I know there's some people around that are gonna be difficult to deal with, but I think we're fighting the good fight and we're gonna go with it 'til the end."

Cunningham said the name of the site has noting to do with idolatry.

"It's in no way a name that was selected to glorify or to honour a particular person. It's a name used by the British to name the fort and it's now a historic place-name that has been used for the last 250 years."

Locals respond

Some P.E.I. locals from Charlottetown told CTV.ca in a telephone interview that they have just gotten used to the name without really thinking about the history.

"I think Fort Amherst is fine. I don't really know all the history. All I can say is it's just been Fort Amherst for so long," Ron Atkinson said.

Local Mark Cooper said, "It's been that way for centuries. It's just part of the local fabric. Fort Amherst has been there as long as I can remember."

Fort Amherst was originally named Port-La-Joye by the French when it was founded in 1720. It was changed by the British to Fort Amherst in 1758, Kimberlee Trainor, co-ordinator for historic sites for Parks Canada in P.E.I. told CTV.ca in a telephone interview.

The site receives up to 20,000 visitors per season, she said.

Sark suggested changing the park's name to Chief Jean-Baptiste La Morue, a Mi'kmaq chief from Prince Edward Island, who signed a peace treaty with the British in 1761.

"It might be a good policy for Canada to recognize our people," said Sark.

P.E.I. local Bert Christie said he understands Sark's frustration with the British name but he's not sure it should get a native one either.

"I can see his point," Christie told CTV.ca in a telephone interview from P.E.I. "But since it was established by the French why not give it the original French name. I would be in favour of that."

Cunningham said there have been name changes on sites in the past, but so far no formal proposal has been received.

"I guess anyone could potentially ask for a name change. We would review it and determine if it's appropriate."

The final decision rests with the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and the process would take at least a year, she said.

Sark said he will be writing a letter to Environment Minister John Baird, who is responsible for Parks Canada.

Baird tried to distance himself from the topic earlier this week after Sark drew comparisons to Hitler's treatment of the Jews.

"To have a place named after General Amherst would be like having a city in Jerusalem named after Adolf Hitler...it's disgusting," Sark told CTV Atlantic.

Baird responded to the remark by saying, "I don't generally comment on people who quote Adolf Hitler or make comparisons to him."

He was not available for any further comment.

Port-La-Joye--Fort Amherst was declared a national historic site in 1967 and was officially opened in 1973.