Renaming Schools: A sign of a society in dialogue with its past

Editors Note: Yesterday and today ActiveHistory.ca offers two perspectives on the recent controversy that erupted in Halifax over the renaming of Cornwallis Junior High School.

By Thomas Peace

It should come as no surprise that the recent controversy over the renaming of a junior high school erupted in Nova Scotia.  On 22 June 2011, the Halifax Regional School Board voted unanimously to change the name of Cornwallis Junior High.  The school board was concerned about the legacy of Edward Cornwallis, the city’s founder, who in an effort to secure the town site placed a bounty on Mi’kmaq heads.  The board’s decision has caused considerable controversy and according to the media it seems that many people want the school’s name retained.  The changing of the school’s name, however, fits within a long history of name changes in Nova Scotia.  It presents a good opportunity to reflect on the diverse roots that make up Nova Scotia’s population and the province’s relationship with its past.  Renaming landmarks is a sign of a growing and evolving society that is in critical dialogue with its past.

Today, few places in Nova Scotia are known by their original names. The community known as Annapolis Royal was once called Port Royal by the French and Tecopsgig by the Mi’kmaq.  Truro was known as Cobequid and Wagobagitk.  Sydney had a plethora of names including Cibou, Riviere Denys, Dartmouth Harbour and Spanish Bay before it was named after Thomas Townshend, the first viscount of Sydney.  Halifax itself was renamed in 1749, replacing the Mi’kmaq name Chebucto with that of the presiding president of the British Board of Trade.  In each of these cases, place names have changed to reflect emerging social and political conditions – most recently the political and military domination of the British Empire.

Each change left a significant legacy.  Many people embrace the names brought by the British, but others continue to use the names from earlier eras.  Today, some Mi’kmaq residents still consider the province as Mi’kma’ki (the land of the Mi’kmaq), while for some Acadians it remains Acadie (the land of the Acadians).  These place names have roots that precede, or at least emerged contemporaneously with, Nova Scotia.  They have coexisted for centuries, with each, at various times, dominating how this large Atlantic peninsula and the places within it have been defined.  None of these definitions have completely disappeared.  The communities for whom they held meaning continue to exist.  The heritage of past place names haunts the debates of the present.

Two concepts of place lie at the heart of the tensions over the renaming of Cornwallis Junior High.  Most of us are familiar with one of the more-mainstream visions.  Halifax is one of Canada’s premier cities with a rich military and cultural history of which Canadians should be proud.  Edward Cornwallis bears much of the responsibility for building a successful European settlement on the shores of Chebucto Bay.  The other vision is less familiar.  In this vision, a Mi’kmaw fishing village (Chebucto) was overrun by European settlers, reducing their access to important marine resources and customary forms of subsistence.  When the Mi’kmaq resisted this intrusion, Edward Cornwallis placed a bounty on Mi’kmaq heads in an effort to re-inscribe the local landscape from a Mi’kmaq to British geography.

Historians and activists differ over what aspects of Cornwallis’s career were most important: the creation of Halifax or the reduction of Chebucto.  One group argues that Cornwallis’s scalping policy reflected European attitudes towards Aboriginal people and the tense climate of war in the mid-eighteenth century.  Although they caution that this policy should not be celebrated, Cornwallis deserves a prominent place in Nova Scotian history and its commemoration.  Place names and monuments in his honour serve as a good reminder of this important city founder and also of how the past is different from the present.

The other group, which is best represented by Mi’kmaw author and activist Daniel Paul, believe that the 1749 scalping policy amounts to ethnic cleansing.  This was a clear policy to push the Mi’kmaq off their land.  The scalping policy was the most obvious sign that the Mi’kmaq would have little say in the transition from Chebucto to Halifax and Mi’kma’ki to Nova Scotia.  In this context, Paul argues that Cornwallis’s name should be vanquished from the twenty-first century Nova Scotia landscape just as thoroughly as Cornwallis had sought to rid the Mi’kmaq from Halifax.

There is truth in both perspectives.  Cornwallis’s scalping policy mirrored similar European policies in both New England and New France.  But calling him a man of his time goes too far.  Just like you and me, Cornwallis had choices to make.  Some of Cornwallis’s contemporaries – particularly those affiliated with the Indian Department – took different approaches, choosing to negotiate with Aboriginal people rather than attack them.  Even the Board of Trade sought to rein-in Cornwallis’s approach to the Mi’kmaq because of its potential to create tensions with Aboriginal people further west.  The eighteenth-century British Empire was a heterogeneous entity, where imperial officials had considerable flexibility in the decisions that they made.

The renaming of Cornwallis Junior High touches on the ambiguities of Nova Scotia’s eighteenth-century history and its many name changes.  Halifax was not created from a virgin forest.  It was built without Mi’kmaq consultation on land that the Mi’kmaq used regularly.  In deciding to rename Cornwallis Junior High, this decision reminds the Canadian public that the past has different meanings for different parts of the population.  For some Nova Scotians, Edward Cornwallis is a figure who should be celebrated; for others, he represents the erosion of their community’s autonomy and independence.  Our public institutions should accommodate these differences and challenge the public to consider how past decisions affected and shaped different parts of Canada’s population.  Some of Canada’s great moments brought about significant hardship for some people living in our country.  Our place names should not ignore this legacy.

Despite the success of Will and Kate’s recent visit, Canada is no longer defined solely by its British heritage.  Cornwallis Junior High should be renamed.  The Halifax Regional School Board’s decision fits into a long Nova Scotian tradition of changing names with evolving social and political conditions.  As Canadian society increasingly recognizes and listens to the diverse communities within our borders, some place names need to change.  As previous name changes have demonstrated, this does not mean that the past will be forgotten; rather name changes reflect a growing and evolving understanding of our past.  This is a sign of a healthy society; one that uses history to learn from the past rather than merely seeking glory from it.

For more information about Edward Cornwallis and the renaming of Cornwallis Junior High see:

The story has been covered in the National Post, The CoastThe Chronicle-Herald as well as over the radio and television waves.

Here’s a short list of historians who have written on some of the issues at stake:

John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire

Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages

Geoffrey Plank, An Unsettled Conquest

John G. Reid, Essays on Northeastern North America

William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial

William C. Wicken, The Colonization of Mi’kmaw Memory and History, 1794-1928

4 thoughts on “Renaming Schools: A sign of a society in dialogue with its past

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    Again, I feel a little like this argument is putting the cart before the horse: Name changes can mean that historical views are evolving healthily, or they could be atavistic, or reactionary, or short-sighted. What if they changed the name of the school to “William Shatner Junior High”: would that reflect a sophisticated, balanced historical consensus? (I’d prefer “Stan Rogers Middle School” myself, but what would that say about my evaluation of Cornwallis?)

    What we should be looking at is not whether the name is changed or preserved, but whether or not the discussion hinges on a carefully sourced and coherently contextualized understanding of the relevant history. If Mr. Bennett, in the previous post, is correct about the poor sourcing of the scalping accusations, for example, then the negative evaluation of Cornwallis in context changes; if he’s wrong, and the accusations are well-founded, then the case for changing the name is clearly strengthened.

  2. Daniel N. Paul

    Excellent non-Eurocentric article! Written with the acceptance of the historic land ownership of the People (Mi’kmaq) in mind, and acknowledging that brutal barbarism was used in wresting their territory and civilization from them.

  3. Pingback: Acknowledging the Land and the People: A Practice for all Canadian Historians – ActiveHistory.ca

  4. Pingback: Acknowledging the Land and the People: A Practice for all Canadian Historians | Thomas Peace

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