Sean French has been calling for the city of Montreal to rename Christopher Columbus Avenue since 2019. In September 2022, he walked the 17-KM stretch of street with the warrior flag to demand it be renamed and to educate people on Columbus’s genocidal legacy.
Recently, he’s found new allies in the struggle to get municipalities to take this step towards reconciliation.
In November, Ray Coelho, a resident of Pointe-Claire, requested that the municipality change its own Columbus Avenue – a 140-metre stretch of road in Pointe-Claire’s industrial district. Since then, he’s gained support from Red Coalition, a federal lobbying group based in Montreal working to eliminate systemic racism in Canada.
“This one was just a no-brainer for us… We’re in 2023. It’s time to advance,” said Joel DeBellefeuille, founder and leader of the Red Coalition.
Christopher Columbus was responsible for the enslavement and murder of untold numbers of Indigenous people throughout the Americas.
“It would be quite easy to change, but they seem quite resistant to it and they’re saying ‘We’ll change ours when Montreal changes theirs,’ which is a silly position to hold,” said French.
French first took interest in the issue in 2019, when Montreal retired Amherst Street, named for Jeffery Amherst, the man whose idea it was to distribute smallpox blankets to Indigenous Peoples. The street, which is actually an extension of Christopher Columbus, is now called Atateken, the Kanien’kéha word for brotherhood between nations.
“You take this one street and you’ve removed the name of the genocidal bastard who created the smallpox blanket idea. That’s a nice act of reconciliation, but the majority of that same route is named after an even worse genocidal monster,” said French, referring to Christopher Columbus Avenue in Montreal.
The issue also has the attention of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK); MCK grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer met with Red Coalition in January and discussed the issue.
Last Tuesday, Coelho, frustrated with the municipality’s inaction, raised the issue at a Pointe-Claire City Council meeting after councillor Brent Cowan told Global News that the city would not change the name before the City of Montreal.
“I find your explanation to be sad because the city is putting its moral responsibility to be a leader of change on other cities that are not related to this subject,” said Coelho.
“You protect the legacy of a slave owner,” he continued.
Pointe-Claire mayor Tim Thomas responded.
“The issue for a lot of us is are we capable of resolving this issue and are we the ones that should best resolve it?” said Thomas.
“We will venture into the issue as a council, with a lot of research and thought before we make such a decision because it is a forebear for all other cities and other streets named Columbus,” Thomas continued.
“The city of Montreal has nothing to do with the city of Pointe-Claire changing its street sign. I don’t live in Montreal,” responded Coelho.
Councillor Eric Stork also participated in the discussion, adding that in his district alone he found at least two streets that were named after slave owners – Walton and Livingston streets – with another named after John Winthrop, who not only owned slaves, but helped author the North Atlantic Slave Codes.
“There’s a lot out there that needs to be digested and gone through to come to a proper conclusion… it’s a big ball to unravel, and I think it needs a bit of time and a better thought process,” said Stork.
For DeBellefeuille and Coelho, this was a disappointing response.
“Fix the problem, rename it, and then move on to something else. Don’t make an excuse,” said DeBellefeuille, taking issue with Stork’s reference to the other streets named after slave owners.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right… It’s like fixing potholes. You’re not gonna fix all of them at the same time,” said DeBellefeuille. “You’re gonna start fixing bit by bit, but if you leave them all, there’s gonna be a whole problem. All the roads are gonna start to crumble.”