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TONY COUTURE: A house of mirrors

Lockerby fails to specify any conditions under which a historical name might be changed

Published on September 8, 2017

Honest history regarding the Mi'kmaq is not as easy to achieve as Earle Lockerby argues (August 23).  

Rather than dismissing philosophy, I suggest that he read Ch. 10, "Making Sense" in the book Truth and Truthfulness by the eminent British philosopher Bernard Williams.
Williams observes, "which narrative prevails if either of them does, may be a matter of who has power over or among the later audience for the narrative of these events" (p 241).
Mr. Lockerby's position is unreasonably conservative and minimalist: once the accidental names of history have been put in place by the victors, no changes ought to be made except according to the bureaucratic criteria of Parks Canada procedures, public opinion should not interfere in this natural order of things.
Mr. Lockerby manifests intellectual cowardice by not specifying any conditions under which a historical name might be changed. He may believe that it is matter of real crimes and actions as determined in the courts with forensic evidence procedures to ensure a fair trial. If so, he relies upon an absolute and indefensible separation between words and actions, which is plainly false in Amherst's peculiar case.
Amherst's words were more than the "commonly held views" (Mr. Lockerby's excuse) of his times according to expert historian, J. Clarence Webster, editor of The Journal of Jeffrey Amherst.
Webster writes, in 1931, regarding Amherst's uncommon bias: "Despising the Indians, he under-rated them, and when he arbitrarily changed the policy... he showed a complete ignorance of Indian psychology. Denouncing the Indians as an "execrable race," he told Sir William Johnson, in the early days of unrest, that, unless they become loyal to the King, "they must not only expect the severest retaliation, but an entire destruction of all their nations, for I am firmly resolved, whenever they give me an occasion, to extirpate them root and branch" (p 19).
Mr. Lockerby's charges about slippery slopes are a red herring fallacy because Keptin John Joe Sark has asked, most modestly, for only one important name change concerning the commander firmly resolved to subjugate or exterminate his people. Amherst's name can never be "expunged" as Lockerby exaggerates to poison the well of that option, it can only be minimized, demoted and moved out of the official title to second or third place, and most contemporary Islanders would call it the "former Fort Amherst." Amherst is a nauseating reminder of the threat of cultural genocide and what almost happened to the Mi'kmaq, and I hope that a newly motivated and enlightened public would see that the reasonable conditions for this name change have been met, though this of course is arguable rather than a fact.
I have made no false statements and my main concern is not modest name changes or culture wars to pull down the memorials of previous generations and raise up new mythical idols, but reasonable land claims that respect aboriginal psychology and some form of universally appealing justice for the Mi'kmaq.
But note the name and land claim connection: if the Mi'kmaq owned Rocky Point and its park, they could name it what they wanted or change the inflammatory name. Ownership is power and the dispossessed are repeatedly victimized by this imposed vagrancy. The official public owner, Parks Canada, is not immune to public opinion changes but democratically answerable to progressive culture.
History grows and dies, changes shape and tone, due to human fallibility in honoring persons or events that from a critical distance later seem extremely mistaken. If Mr. Lockerby can find his way out of the historical house of mirrors and recover a sense of his own fallibility, he ought to desist from hallowing this particular existing name. Concurring with the intransigence of Parks Canada is a mistake as it is an absurdly conservative position in a progressive context. It makes sense of the meaning of truth and reconciliation to follow the lead of Keptin John Joe Sark and bury the execrable name of Fort Amherst.

- Tony Couture is a professor in the Philosophy Department, UPEI