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 The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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6 Responses to Tear Down the Statue?: The Edward Cornwallis Debate

  1. Ryan Cameron says:

    As we’re standing here in the rubble of 30% of halifax torn up after HRM Council rushed to seemingly approve any developer request they got, the Mayor’s resistance on that 1 statue seems…a bit disingenuous.

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

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

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

  5. John Corbett says:

    Leave the statue but, instead of memorializing Cornwallis tell the story.

    Nova Scotia today is what it is in part because of the Cornwallis story. It is also because of the story of our Indigenous peoples; as well as the stories of the Acadians, Loyalists, Planters,Scots, Irish, Germans, Blacks, Lebanese. Its future growth will continue to be influenced as immigration continues and the new arrivals integrate into society

    Instead of erasing chapters of our story, efforts should be made to add the chapters written by the others.

    Simple removal of the statue will not change what Nova Scotia is today. If it is left and efforts are made to tell its story, and the statues and stories of the others are added, the knowledge gained would have a positive impact on the community as it grows into the future.

    Leave the statue.

  6. Removing the statue doesn’t erase the Cornwallis story – it simply removes a statue. And this statue is an object of commemoration raised in the 1930s when the Halifax city elites were concerned about the eroding connection to Great Britain. This means that it was a figure chosen about 8 decades ago to reaffirm British ties in the face of growing Canadian independence. In that context this statue isn’t just an affront to indigenous peoples, but can be viewed as anti-Canadian as well.

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