By Lachlan MacKinnon
On 30 May 2013, the controversial statue of Edward Cornwallis standing in downtown Halifax was once again thrust into public debate. That morning, the rear of the monument’s base was found to have been graffitotagged with the word “fake.” Similarly, the plaque bearing Cornwallis’s name was defaced with the words “self-righteous ass.” This was the latest salvo in a contentious discussion about the role of public commemoration in Halifax, the importance of these sites in our historical memory, and contestations over “whose history” is memorialized, commemorated, and glorified.
The current debate harkens back to March 2010 when Daniel Paul, author of We Were Not the Savages and advocate for Mi’kmaq culture, publicized a petition calling for “changing the name of all public entities such as schools, streets, parks, etc. which currently honor the name of Edward Cornwallis.” Despite Cornwallis’s role as the founder of Halifax, Paul argues that his 1749 proclamation declaring a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps should preclude him from public celebration. The issue became increasingly politically charged the following month, after four models for a local hairdressing shop were photographed posing with human hair extensions alongside the Cornwallis statue. In 2011, members of the Halifax school board voted to change the name of Cornwallis Junior High as a result of the controversy. This decision prompted historians to wade into the debate; Paul Bennett, writing for ActiveHistory.ca, levied the charge of historical whitewashing and argued that social justice advocates and special interests sought to “sanitize” the past. Contrarily, Tom Peace viewed the name change as symptomatic of “growing and evolving understanding of our past;” it was, he argued, the sign of a healthy society. The question remains: why do the monuments we erect, the names we choose for our streets and schools, and other representations of the past prompt such factious discussion?
These sites are not unchanging signifiers of history “as-it-happened,” but instead are reflections of our modern ways of thinking about the past. They reveal “historical memory” as it existed at the moment of their creation, but their meanings shift and change alongside our own modern reconceptualizations of history. In 1931, when the Cornwallis statue was initially designed and erected in Halifax by J. Massey Rind, “history” was conceptualized in narrow colonial terms that focused heavily on the actions and contributions of those that were considered “great men.” Since that time, we have expanded the definition of history to include the stories of traditionally underrepresented groups, such as women, aboriginal peoples, and workers. As the result of these shifts, we are sometimes left with commemorative sites that no longer reflect the values of the present – historiographical or otherwise. In terms of the Cornwallis monument, the physical features of the statue offer only a narrative of colonial glory and imperial magnificence. Nowhere in the stern visage, broad shoulders, and wide stance of the Cornwallis statue are alternative narratives of the past represented, such as those that speak to the unmitigated catastrophe of colonial policy for aboriginal peoples in the mid-18th century. When sites of memory become unrepresentative of prevailing historical or public discourse, excluded groups often attempt to subvert dominant narratives through graffiti, vandalism, or complete destruction of these contested representations.
It is not difficult to find instances where sites of memory have been radically challenged. In January 2011, for example, a statue of John A. MacDonald in Kingston, Ontario was vandalized with spray-painted epithets such as “murderer” and “this is stolen land.” In Québec, monuments bearing the images of politicians and military figures have been vandalized on several occasions since the 1960s – including one instance in 1992 where the monument to John A. MacDonald in downtown Montréal was decapitated. In the United States, too, these sites of contention become battlegrounds for historical memory. In Chicago’s Haymarket Square, the site of one of the best known labour conflicts in American history, a monument to the local police force was defaced a number of times during the 20th century. The Haymarket Police Monument, initially intended to represent anti-communism within the city, became identified with authoritarianism and right-wing politics. In 1972, after a number of instances of vandalism including a bombing in 1970, the statue was moved from public space to the headquarters of the city’s police department. The dominant narratives revealed in each of these commemorative sites, while reflective of a historical memory that was hegemonic at the moment of erection, have since been challenged by groups whose own experiences have been overlooked and overshadowed in the public sphere; this is certainly the case with the Cornwallis monument in Halifax.
How, then, do we deal with sites of memory that are unrepresentative of present values and beliefs? Do we, as Daniel Paul proposes, simply remove all offending instances? In this case, we might be re-naming buildings, removing statues, and changing street names for the next several years. Neither, though, should we simply leave these sites to influence collective memory with ahistorical narratives of the past that do not match with present historical consensus. In a CBC radio interview, historian John Reid has put forward the idea of moving the Cornwallis monument to a museum where it might be properly contextualized as a product of historical thought in the 1920s and 1930s. Barring the removal of the statue from the park, the addition of a similar memorial -devoted to a significant person or event chosen by the first nations community – could effectively represent that group’s historical memory while subverting the colonial narratives put forward by the Cornwallis monument. Regardless of how we ultimately choose to deal with these issues of inclusion and exclusion in the commemorative landscape, we must not shy away from critiquing unrepresentative forms of historical memory. Historians, as key stakeholders in this debate, must not be chased away with charges of historical revisionism or political correctness run amok; rather, we must challenge exclusionary narratives as they exist today and offer viable solutions moving forward.
1. See also: Stephen E. Patterson, “Colonial Wars and Aboriginal Peoples,” The Atlantic Region to Confederation: A History, eds. Phillip A. Buckner and John G. Reid (Toronto and Fredericton: University of Toronto Press and Acadiensis Press, 1994), 129; Margaret R. Conrad and James K. Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Region in the Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 82.
2. Kevin Stanhope, the owner of the hairdressing studio, was unaware of the grisly connotations that were drawn from such an image. “Who would suspect? It’s a public park,” he said. Daniel Paul believes that the photoshoot was purely coincidental.
3. Melissa Dabakis, Visualizing Labour in American Sculpture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 35.
4. A similar solution was enacted in Richmond, Virginia in 1996, when a statue of African-American Arthur Ashe was added to Monument Avenue. Previously, Monument Avenue came under criticism for several monuments dedicated to confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart.
Lachlan MacKinnon is a Ph.D. student at Concordia University focusing on workers’ experiences of deindustrialization in Atlantic Canada.
Your readers may find my new biography of Edward Cornwallis useful – http://www.jontattrie.ca/cornwallis.html
My review of Jon Tattrie’s book might help provide a little more historical context. It’s an attempt to address the critical need for “more history, not less” and to inject a little balance into the subterranean debate here in Nova Scotia:
I do not advocate that Cornwallis’s history be erased from history books, nor do I advocate that Hitler, Stalin, etc., histories be erased from history books, what I do advocate is that any individual, past or present, who has crossed the line of human decency by trying to exterminate a race of people not be idolized by any modern society that deems itself civilized. When Governor Edward Cornwallis issued a proclamation for the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women and children he crossed the line of civilized behaviour.