Should Montreal’s Amherst Street be renamed after Jacques Parizeau?

An online petition is calling on Montreal's mayor to rename Amherst Street after former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau. The Canadian Press/The National Portrait Gallery/Global News

MONTREAL — Is it possible the paths of former Quebec premiers René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau could cross once again?

Some Montrealers are hoping that, finally, a city street bearing the name of an infamous British baron will be changed to honour another controversial historical figure.

An online petition has been gathering steam, garnering over 2,600 signatures by Thursday afternoon. It is calling on the city’s mayor Denis Coderre to rename Amherst Street after former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau.

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READ MORE: Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau remembered as a ‘giant’

Parizeau died on Monday night at the age of 84. He served as Quebec’s premier from 1994 to 1996, nearly leading the province to independence in 1995. However, his comments on referendum night, where he controversially blamed “money and the ethnic vote,” led to his resignation one day later.

Amherst Street runs perpendicular to René Lévesque Boulevard in downtown Montreal.

Street name controversy

This isn’t the first time there have been calls to change the name of the street, which honours an 18th-century commanding officer of the British army, Jefferey Amherst.

In August 2009, about a dozen protesters from the separatist group Young Patriots of Quebec demanded the street’s name be changed. They gathered outside city hall waving Quebec flags and chanting “Amherst criminal” and “Amherst murderer.”

The truth about Baron Jeffery Amherst

Born on Jan. 29, 1717, Jeffery Amherst served as an officer in the British army and as Commander-in-Chief of the British forces. He was in North America for just five years, before returning to England, where he died on Aug. 3, 1797 on his family estate near Sevenoaks, in a country house he named “Montreal.”

During that short period, Amherst had become famous for two things:

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  • leading an army down the St. Lawrence River to capture Montreal in September 1760, thereby ending French rule in North America;
  • ordering the spread of smallpox as a means of warfare against a confederation of Native American tribes during the 1763 siege of Fort Pitt.

The controversy of whether smallpox was used as a biological weapon during the Pontiac War has never been proven, but it certainly can be shown that Amherst made the “detestable suggestion” that disease be introduced in a letter to British officer Henry Bouquet.

A postscript in a letter from Baron Jeffery Amherst to British officer Henry Bouquet dated July 16, 1763. Archives/UMass Amherst

The postscript of the letter read:

“You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blankets, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. I should be very glad your Scheme for Hunting them Down by Dogs could take Effect, but England is at too great a Distance to think of that at present.”

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Writing in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, historian Charles P. Stacey noted that Amherst “had an unbroken record of success as a commander, but he was a solid rather than a brilliant soldier,” and his “dislike and contempt for the Indians are amply reflected in his journals and correspondence, though it may perhaps be doubted whether he was more bigoted than the average official of his time.”

WATCH: Mike Armstrong on the legacy of former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau

— With a file from The Canadian Press

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