News

Putting Canada’s violent history in storage

Halifax votes to temporarily remove a controversial statue of city founder Edward Cornwallis while it figures out how to celebrate Indigenous history.

by Ashley Renders
Jan 31 2018, 3:15pm

Canadian Press

Councillors in Halifax, Nova Scotia have decided to temporarily remove a controversial statue considered an impediment to reconciliation with Indigenous people in Nova Scotia. The statue commemorates Edward Cornwallis, a military leader who founded the city of Halifax in 1749 and offered a cash reward for anyone who killed a Mi’kmaq person.

When Cornwallis established the city of Halifax he took over Mi’kmaq moose hunting territory, a religious site, and several vital waterways. When conflict broke out, Cornwallis issued the “Scalping Proclamation” that resulted in “attacks on Mi’kmaq villages and mercenaries bringing in dozens of scalps to claim bounties,” according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Halifax council voted 12-4 on Tuesday to put the statue memorializing Cornwallis in storage at a cost of approximately $25,000, but it hasn’t decided what to do with it yet. That part requires the advice of an expert panel that will make recommendations about how to celebrate the city’s history.

It’s the kind of tough decision that communities across Canada have been grappling with recently, as governments attempt to reconcile with Indigenous people who have experienced centuries of violence, discrimination and marginalization.

'ARCHITECT OF GENOCIDE'

Taking cues from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Law Society of British Columbia decided in April to remove a statue of Justice Matthew Begbie, a judge who hanged six Tsilhqot’in chiefs.

In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to remove the name of Hector-Louis Langevin, an advocate for residential schools, from the building that houses the Prime Minister’s Office.

Two weeks later, students at Ryerson University in Toronto demanded that the school change its name, and were met with considerable backlash. The school’s namesake, Egerton Ryerson, was instrumental in the development of the residential school system, which took Indigenous children from their families and placed them in church-run schools where abuse and mistreatment were rampant. The school has not changed its name.

The following month, The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario voted to rename all Ontario schools bearing the name of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, calling him an “architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.” But Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the proposal “missed the mark” and Canadian children should be taught “the full history of this country.”

The fate of the Cornwallis statue in Halifax will be determined by a special advisory committee that will make recommendations about how the city should commemorate its founder and honour Indigenous history. The committee was approved in October but has yet to appoint members or convene a meeting.

On Friday, The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs decided that the process was taking too long and voted to demand that the city remove the statue immediately.

“We have been more than patient to see movement on this,” Chief Bob Gloade of the Millbrook First Nation said in a statement. “The Mi’kmaq need to see action now, and that is why we voted for the statue to be immediately removed.”

City councillor Sam Austin called the statue a “barrier to reconciliation” during a council debate yesterday, and Councillor Richard Zurawski said the statue was “a visual symbol of supremacy.”

'LESS PEACEFUL'

A staff report presented during the city council debate cites “public safety” as the most immediate concern. The report points out a protest planned for Sunday aims to “bring down the Cornwallis statue” and that future protests may be “less peaceful” than previous ones.

In July, a Mi’kmaq ceremony calling attention to the Cornwallis statue was disrupted by a group of protesters who were part of the Proud Boys Maritime chapter, an alt-right group that includes members of the Canadian military and describes itself on Facebook as “a fraternal organization of Western Chauvinists who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world.”

The group approached the ceremony in black polo shirts singing God Save The Queen. The personal details of those supporting the Indigenous protesters were later published on an anonymous Twitter account.

“Removing the statue offers the opportunity to reduce the current volatility around discussions of commemoration, protect the statue, and undertake a public engagement in a less charged environment than is currently the case,” says the staff report to city council.

But Halifax councillor Steve Adams disagrees with the decision to remove the statue based on potential conflict. “This is not the way to run a city, based on threats of violence,” he said. Instead, Adams recommends leaving the statue of Cornwallis and adding statues that memorialize other important historical figures in a “Founders Plaza.”

A group of Grade 6 to 8 students in Port Williams, Nova Scotia came to the same conclusion last month when they were asked to come up with a solution for the Cornwallis statue. They agreed to add three new statues representing African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq and Acadians. They also decided to bring Cornwallis down from his podium so he could join them on the ground.