Tear Down the Statue?: The Edward Cornwallis Debate

By Martha Walls and Corey Slumkoski

In Halifax, the issue of naming parks, buildings and other public sites after British soldier and “city founder” Edward Cornwallis has been contentious and longstanding. A May 2016 decision of Halifax City Council to not debate the renaming of public landmarks bearing Cornwallis’ name did not silence the matter. In April 2017, at the urging City Councilor Shawn Cleary, the city endorsed a plan to establish an expert panel to further consider the Cornwallis issue, though with little momentum since. Recently, a Canada Day attempt by five men who claimed membership in a racist right-wing fraternity called the “Proud Boys” to interrupt a protest by Indigenous people in a ceremony at the foot of the symbolic Cornwallis statue in a downtown park has again thrust the issue into the public spotlight.

This coming Saturday, 15 July 2017, Mi’kmaq have organized another protest at the feet of Cornwallis. Having demanded assurances from the city that the Cornwallis statue will be removed by Natal Day, the day that commemorates Halifax’s “founding” by the British, organizers promise to “peacefully remove” the statue if such a guarantee is not made by Saturday. Promoted via social media and reported on by various news outlets, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, and the Executive Director of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre have all weighed in, calling for temperance in the protest. Still, as other Mi’kmaq and their supporters endorse the protest and have received no city assurances about the statue’s imminent removal, the protest is slated to go ahead. Cornwallis’s fate remains unknown.

Advocates for the removal of the Cornwallis statue cite the distressing colonial legacy of Edward Cornwallis, a man whose 1749 “Scalp Proclamation” infamously offered a cash reward for the murder of Mi’kmaq people and embodies a harsh and genocidal British campaign against Indigenous people. The celebration of his image in city spaces, they contend, reinforces past inequities and obscures disturbing truths about Halifax’s founding.

Those who support the maintenance of the Cornwallis statue – whose ideas emerge clearly in various social media exchanges – also root their positions in history. They harbour fears about “re-writing” history and wish to “protect” a city heritage that has been promulgated for decades (and reinforced by the existence of the Cornwallis statue and other edifices bearing his name). Other Cornwallis supporters evoke “history” differently as they justify the maintenance of Cornwallis by drawing on the false equivalency – false in every sense of the word – that genocide was par for the course in the 18th century and that the Mi’kmaq were enthusiastic participants. Recent online comments regarding the planned protest picked up this thread as they evoked the (erroneous) notion that the Mi’kmaq partook in the wholesale slaughters not only of the Beothuk of Newfoundland, but the “Vikings” as well, and thus deserved their own fate at the hands of the British. [1]

As professional historians we are intrigued – and in some instances highly disturbed – by the “history” generated by the Cornwallis debate. As our combined expertise encompasses the experiences of Mi’kmaw struggles against colonialism and issues in the commemoration of past events, we are not only deeply aware of how problematic a figure is Cornwallis as an object of celebration, but we are also keenly attuned to the role that commemoration has in shaping the contemporary social and cultural climate of a community. As we see it, the Cornwallis debate revolves around reconsidering the ways in which we remember, or commemorate, the past.

Commemoration is not now—and has never been, nor should it ever be—a static and unchanging enterprise intended to preserve an unalterable, singular version of the past. It demands that we not just recount what happened, but that we reflect more deeply on how our collective pasts intersect with current values and beliefs. We believe that, collectively, our values and beliefs have changed significantly since the erection of the Edward Cornwallis Statue in 1931—we are a more diverse society that better recognizes our varied historical experiences, and we are attuned to the ways in which certain Nova Scotians continue to be marginalized by injustices of the past. Removing the Cornwallis statue does not mean excising him from our history. It simply means that we are offering an unequivocal statement that our values have changed over the past eighty plus years.

Clearly, this is a polarizing issue. It seems likely that this Saturday both sides of the debate will meet at the Cornwallis statue in downtown Halifax. We sincerely hope that this will be a peaceful and respectful protest/counter-protest, one that generates insightful debate and satisfactory resolution to the matter of Edward Cornwallis’ place in twenty-first century Halifax.

Please note: portions of this post were previously published in a 19 May 2016 letter to the editor of The Coast.


Martha Walls and Corey Slumkoski teach in the History Department at Mount Saint Vincent University.


Notes:

[1] This line of argument can be seen in comments made by Cornwallis supporters on the Removing Cornwallis Facebook page. We have altered the original text in recognition of the fact that comments on the CBC’s online coverage of this event have now been disabled.

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About Corey Slumkoski

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University and the Digital Communications Editor for Acadiensis.
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3 Responses to Tear Down the Statue?: The Edward Cornwallis Debate

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of July 9, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Reclaiming, Not Renaming – ActiveHistory.ca

  3. Pingback: The politics of reclaiming, not renaming – Nova Scotia Advocate

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