He’s been dead for over 240 years, but former Nova Scotia Governor Edward Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax, remains a controversial figure who continues to garner headlines and be the subject of heated debate. While Cornwallis may have played a significant military role in the shaping of the province’s history and heritage and of course his founding of Halifax in 1749, there is a dark side to his past. During that period, he issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq men, women and children, in response to an attack on colonists. The Mi'kmaq, led by Nova Scotia historian Dan Paul, have long called for removal of tributes to Cornwallis, some calling his actions against their ancestors a "genocide." Cornwallis’s statue in a south end Halifax Park had been the flashpoint for this controversy for some time and it culminated with the sudden and dramatic removal of the statue last month. Halifax Regional Council had voted 12-4 in favor of putting the statue in storage. If the city thought pulling down a statue would appease or silence its critics on both sides of the debate, they were mistaken. It has only further polarized the community. As well, Cornwallis’s historical presence hasn’t been totally removed from the province’s landscape with his name on everything from a river to a church and street signs.
The treatment of our First Nations people from the early days of colonization up to modern times with the sad legacy of the residential schools has been shameful. The atrocities that took place during the 18th Century against groups like the Mi’kmaq, Acadians and even the Scots were considered acceptable practices during that period in history. How we deal with the sins of our forefathers is proving to be complex and yet it shouldn’t be. As Premier Stephen McNeil has pointed out, “we can't ignore the good and bad parts of our history. They're there to be learned from.” We need to make sure though, that we tell the full story to our own children and to future generations. We can’t erase the past, but we can certainly present our history with some objectivity. Edward Cornwallis will always be part of the province’s history, but we didn’t have to continue honouring him with a statue. As one writer has suggested, why not use the park as an interpretative area with a series of information panels that tell the true story of Halifax and the role the British, the M’ikmaq and the Acadians played in its founding.
Equally as horrific as what Cornwallis perpetrated upon the M’ikmaq was Lord Jeffery Amherst’s treatment of First Nations people. You’ll recall he ordered his troops to use smallpox-infected blankets as germ warfare against American Natives. There have been suggestions by some that towns and communities named Amherst should look at a name change. While it seems highly impractical to erase place names memorializing such historical figures as Cornwallis, Amherst, or even John A. Macdonald, we can at least ensure that the history being taught in our classrooms is at least accurate and an unsanitized accounting of events. Sadly, racism, brutality and genocide were all part of the colonization of this nation and we can’t erase that from the history books.
Geoff deGannes is the past chairman of the Tantramar Radio Society. His daily commentaries can be heard on 107.9 CFTA.