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Adding Indigenous name to controversial PEI site an 'insult': Mi'kmaq leader

Last Updated Feb 17, 2018 at 2:20 pm EDT

CHARLOTTETOWN – A member of the Mi’kmaq Nation traditional government says adding an Indigenous name to a Prince Edward Island historic site that bears the name of a controversial British general is a “grave insult” to his people.

John Joe Sark said he is unsatisfied with Parks Canada’s recent decision to add the Mi’kmaq name “skmaqn” to the Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site, which is near Charlottetown.

Catherine McKenna, the federal minister responsible for Parks Canada, issued a statement on Friday confirming the official name of the site will now be Skmaqn–Port-la-Joye–Fort Amherst National Historic Site of Canada.

Sark said putting a Mi’kmaq name alongside that of General Jeffrey Amherst is “demeaning” given his contention that the British military commander tried to wipe out the Mi’kmaq by giving them smallpox-infected blankets.

“To put a Mi’kmaq name beside the name of that tyrant would be a disgrace and grave insult to the Mi’kmaq people,” Sark said in a phone interview on Saturday.

“It’s insulting. It’s still treating us in a paternalistic way … They still don’t realize we’re people.”

McKenna said Friday that skmaqn, which means the “waiting place,” is thought to have its origins in the mid-1700s when Mi’kmaq and French leaders met annually at the site to renew their military alliance.

She said the site is a place where Canadians can learn about the lived experiences of the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, French and British, including the “darker chapters of Canada’s history,” such as the treatment of Indigenous Peoples and the deportation of Acadians.

McKenna said the name change was made in the “spirit of reconciliation,” adding that no relationship is more important to the federal government than the one with Indigenous Peoples.

She said the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada is making the change on the recommendation of the Mi’kmaq Confederacy of Prince Edward Island.

A spokeswoman for Parks Canada said in an email last year that the site does not “does not commemorate or celebrate the actions of Jeffery Amherst.”

Audrey Champagne said the board decided to keep Amherst’s name because of the site’s historical ties to the British seat of government in mid-1700s, a justification Sark disputes as historically inaccurate.

Champagne declined to be interviewed about the site’s new name on Friday.

Sark, who has been campaigning to have Amherst’s name scrubbed from the site since 2008, said he is considering taking his fight to the United Nations because he feels like he has no credence with Canadian federal officials.

Amherst, an officer in the British army in the mid-1700s, is considered a key architect 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, including Amherst, N.S., and Amherstburg, Ont., bear his name.

Montreal struck Amherst’s name from a city street last fall, and Amherst College in Massachusetts said last year the British military commander would no longer appear in school communications or as an unofficial mascot.

—By Adina Bresge in Halifax, with files from Michael MacDonald.