Military historian urges caution in Halifax's debate over Cornwallis
A statue of Edward Cornwallis stands in a Halifax park on Thursday, June 23, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
HALIFAX -- Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says he expects an upcoming Halifax council debate about whether municipal landmarks should bear Edward Cornwallis's name to have wider implications.
"I'm sure people will be watching," McNeil told reporters at legislature Friday. "I don't think we can eliminate our history -- good or bad. The reality of it is, we need to be sensitive at times."
Halifax councillor Waye Mason plans to introduce a motion as soon as next week that would re-assess "commemorations" of Cornwallis, Nova Scotia's first governor and namesake for a street, park and statue in the city.
The premier predicts other communities may decide to follow suit.
The proposal has dredged up a centuries-old conflict over the legacy of Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax. Many welcome this discussion, including Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.
In 1749, Cornwallis issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq men, women and children. Some historians characterize the order as a "genocide."
"We can't ignore the good and bad parts of our history," McNeil said. "They're there to be learned from. We need to make sure we tell the full story to our own children and to generations."
In light of his treatment of aboriginal people, some have called for Cornwallis's name to be removed from public places.
But historians fear re-naming these sites will erase Nova Scotia's heritage.
John Boileau of the Halifax Military Preservation Society said he worries council's discussion will be based on one-sided, racially charged and historically inaccurate claims that dominate the public debate.
He suggests council convene a panel of historians, researchers and advocates to deliberate on the issue, inviting members of the public to submit their own opinions.
"If someone stands up and tries to defend Cornwallis, for whatever reason, they're immediately accused of being racist," Boileau said in an interview.
The historian says Cornwallis was a product of his time, and his sins were more strategic than malicious.
"I deplore what happened to the Mi'kmaq, but it also happened to thousands of other societies," Boileau said. "Conquest, whether legitimate or not, has been a continuing part of history. It continues to this day."
Boileau said if every name was judged by its darkest moments, every street, town and province would be up for grabs.
Halifax's largest school board voted to rename Cornwallis Junior High in 2011.
The Cornwallis controversy ripples through the Annapolis Valley, where a group led by Richelle Brown Redden is presenting a plan to rename the Cornwallis River to several regional councils.
"I think (the premier) has made that acknowledgment that the name is no longer appropriate," she said. "We choose what we honour based on who we are today."
Last year, McNeil took down signs for the Cornwallis River out of sensitivity for the nearby Annapolis Valley First Nation.
Redden says her campaign is inspired by her 10-year-old son Caiden, who organized a protest last Valentine's Day with his friends to raise awareness of Cornwallis's legacy.
"We choose what we honour today based on who we are as a people today," Redden said. "(It's not) about acknowledgment of communal guilt . It's about communal responsibility."