According to Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Chief Ghislain Picard, Montreal’s renaming of Amherst Street with the Mohawk word Atateken is “significant” because it strays away from Quebec’s historical treatment of Indigenous people as “not very dignified.”
Announced last summer, the changing of the street signs took place October 21. Atateken means “brothers and sisters” in Mohawk.
Citing the Oka Crisis of 1990, Picard said Quebec’s leadership at the time “obviously indicated that we [the province] had a final way to do away with parts of our history.”
Picard was glad to see the street renamed because British General Jeffrey Amherst tried to exterminate Indigenous peoples via biological warfare in the form of smallpox-infected blankets in the 1760s during Pontiac’s War.
The renaming has taken some time as original talks for the project began with former mayor Denis Coderre who had planned it as an event to coincide with Montreal’s 375th birthday celebrations in 2017.
“Amherst was a figure in our history who doesn’t deserve the kind of recognition that he has had,” Picard explained.
Picard indicated that there were other issues which were tabled during Coderre’s administration, but they settled on removing Amherst. From there a committee was formed to choose a new name and Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal administration picked up the torch when they came into power in 2017.
The committee worked closely with representatives from the Mohawk and Algonquin nations as well as representatives of Montreal’s Indigenous community.
Atateken became the choice most favoured by committee members and the Indigenous communities because the word in the Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) language means a notion of equality among people.
Picard, who was there for the re-naming announcement and made a speech on June 21 as part of Indigenous Peoples Day, said the outcome was indeed satisfying. The street finally received its new signs on October 22.
While this “act of reconciliation” has made some ground for the Indigenous Peoples, Picard said the AFNQL was not yet ready to make other recommendations as there are other “forces against us,” he said.
This was in reference to how Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer had campaigned that his party wasn’t in favour of renaming streets like Amherst or removing statues of Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, the mastermind behind the country’s residential-school system.
“The question is: does it stop here? No, it doesn’t. This is only one part of a more comprehensive process that needs to take place,” said Picard.
While several Canadian cities as well as Scotland have removed references to Scottish-born Macdonald, his monument in downtown Montreal still remains despite being a frequent target for vandalism.
According to Picard, the statue is not part of a set process for the AFNQL as they would rather focus their efforts on ending the use of Indigenous Peoples as mascots for sports teams in Quebec.