University student pushes to change name of Montreal street

‘I don’t think we should give prominence to someone like Christopher Columbus,’ says Ray Coelho.

A Concordia University student is on a mission to rename a major Montreal street commemorating one of the fathers of colonialism in the “Americas.”

In June, Ray Coelho started a petition to change Christophe-Colomb (Christopher Columbus) Avenue, located in the city’s downtown area.

“It bothers me to see another colonial figure who subjugated the Native people of this hemisphere be celebrated with statues and street names,” Coelho said during an interview in Turin Park, where a bust of Columbus is on display.

“A street name is basically giving them prominence. I don’t think we should give prominence to someone like Christopher Columbus and his legacy.”

Coelho, whose parents are from India, a country colonized by Great Britain, has spent the last few weeks going door to door collecting signatures and educating Montrealers about Columbus’ sordid legacy of rape, torture, executions, and enslavement of Indigenous peoples, including children.

He currently has about 200 signatures and is aiming for 1,000, at which point he plans on making a formal name change request to the City of Montreal.

The petition suggests restoring its previous name, Des Ormes Blvd., or “Elm trees” in English.

“The majority of people that I have approached that are home have signed the petition, which is very encouraging,” he said.

“And for those who are not signing immediately, they are questioning the history, and I show them that the history is valid and supported by historians.”

Montreal city councillor and special advisor Alia Hassan-Cournol explained that the city has a designated committee that deals with this type of request.

She pointed to the 2019 name change of Amherst St., named after Jeffery Amherst, a British general who distributed smallpox-infested blankets to Indigenous people.

The city worked closely with the Mohawk community of Kahnawake on the name change, and the street is now called Atateken, a Kanien’kéha word that loosely translates to “brothers and sisters.”

“If we take the example of Christopher Columbus, the solution may not be to rename the street. Perhaps it’s to add to the history,” Hassan-Cournol said in an interview.

“Perhaps to add a plaque explaining the history of Christopher Columbus and the more painful and darker past, we know about this personality. It could be to add another name, but that’s for the committee to think about.”

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But Coelho’s campaign is not limited to the downtown area. He would also like to rename Columbus Avenue, located in the municipality of Pointe-Claire, where he grew up and currently lives.

Alex Tyrrel, the leader of the Green Party of Quebec, has thrown his support behind Coelho’s movement and says the change should be adopted.

“I think that one of the most elementary steps to reconciliation is to take down the monuments to the genocidal figures, to the people that perpetuated this brutality towards the Indigenous peoples who were here far before the Europeans arrived,” he explained.

Moreover, federal lobbyist against racial profiling, Alain Babineau with the Red Coalition, agrees with Tyrrel and said that he hopes that once the request is formally submitted, the city will act swiftly.

“This is a very important issue because systemic issues call for systemic measures. And this is – although being symbolic, it represents so much in terms of the racism and discrimination systemically that we find in our society today, be it colonialism or slavery,” Babineau said.

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