What’s In a Monument? Part II: The Edward Cornwallis Monument and Reconciliation

“What’s in a Monument?” is based on a public lecture delivered on March 11 in the History Matters Series organized by the University of Calgary History Department and the Calgary Public Library. We recommend that you read yesterday’s post by Jewel Spangler about the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville before Part II because it provides the theoretical framework for this piece.

By Nancy Janovicek

This blog post builds on Jewel Spangler’s arguments about heritage stories and the crucial distinction between history and commemoration in Part I of “What’s in a Monument?”, which discussed the Charlottesville Riots that erupted after the attempted relocation of the Robert E. Lee Monument a year ago. Focusing on the January removal of the Edward Cornwallis monument in Halifax, I also begin from the premise that monuments “are artifacts of those who commemorate.”

Statue of Edward Cornwallis removed from Halifax Park, January 2018

The Canadian controversy echoed the US incident, but in Canada, the removal was resolved peacefully. I argue that the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) opened a space receptive to Indigenous critiques of imperialist heritage stories. But I want to be clear from the outset that it was never our intention to contrast a violent and racist US debate with a peaceful and tolerant Canadian response to contestations about interpretations of the past. We gave the public lectures on which these posts are based shortly after the verdicts were delivered in the Colten Bouchey and Tina Fontaine cases. Their violent deaths demonstrate that in our journey towards reconciliation, heeding Indigenous people’s criticisms of colonial narratives is only a first step in connecting past actions with current injustices.

The Cornwallis Monument Debate

Past Active History posts about the Cornwallis debate provide further context for this piece. Thomas Peace appealed to history educators to move beyond unproductive debates about teaching history that pit rote learning of facts against inquiry-based pedagogy. In order to use history to participate in civic debates and politics, people need to “think with history,”[1] a skill that requires both facts and process. Tom Fraser celebrated the success of the thirty-year Mi’kmaw campaign launched by Daniel Paul. These heritage projects, he argued, are remnants of an imperialist national project that insist that Canada is a British space. He called on educators and historians to take a leadership role in explaining what these commemorative projects represent to Indigenous peoples.

Daniel Paul first challenged the tributes to Cornwallis in his 1993 book We Were Not the Savages. Paul’s distinguished career as a human rights activist and specialist in Mi’kmaw heritage is important to the history of the campaign. Using human rights discourses, Paul reframed the treatment of Mi’kmaw peoples in the colonial period as crimes against humanity. He rejected the defense of Cornwallis as a man of his times:

“Anyone who attempts to justify the actions of the governments of Nova Scotia in 1744 and 1749 that issued all-inclusive proclamations for the extermination of men, women, and children ought to know there is no excuse for the inexcusable. These barbarous acts of so-called ‘responsible governments’ cannot be forgiven and should never be forgotten.”[2]

Paul demanded the removal of Cornwallis’ name from schools and the monument in Halifax.[3] For the Mi’kmaq and their allies, celebrating a “genocidal imperialist” no longer reflected Canadian values.

Champions of the Cornwallis and Lee statues have made similar arguments. The Halifax Military History Society was one of Cornwallis’ most vocal defenders. John Boileau, chair of the society, has maintained that Cornwallis was a great military leader and founder of the colony, a history that John Reid contested in his essay about the commissioning of the monument.[4] Boileau opposed the removal of the statue arguing, “You don’t have to destroy one history to tell another … This does not have to be a zero-sum game.” His argument fails to recognize the distinction between history and commemoration while also demonstrating that fights about monuments are disagreements about perspectives of the past. The history he promoted was the perspective of the people who built the statue, an interpretation of the past that erased the Mi’kmaq. The debate about the relocation of the statue hinged on whether or not this interpretation was worth celebrating.

Commemoration looks back to assert the cultural authority of an influential group. Commemoration also looks forward. As Reid has demonstrated, city boosters commissioned the monument in 1931 as part of their plan to promote Halifax as a tourist and conference hub.[5] In 2018, city councilors who voted for its removal prioritized good relationships with Mi’kmaw people as they looked forward. Councillor Shawn Cleary, who voted in favour of relocating the statue, stated: “It had become an impediment to building a new relationship with the Mi’kmaw people here in Nova Scotia.” Suzanne Patles, an organizer of the Mi’kmaw rally, stated: “It’s very empowering to be here today and to see the statue is removed. It’s very moving that our collective voices are so powerful that we’re able to move mountains and move statues.” For Indigenous activists this was a crucial step toward reconciliation.

Brenda Macdougall has recently argued that debates about “naming and renaming” are not new, but the TRC Calls to Action have changed the dialogue about commemoration. The investigation into the residential school system has compelled Canadians to come to terms with the ongoing impact of colonialism on Indigenous families, peoples, and nations. Residential schools are not just a sad chapter in Canadian history; the schools are closed, but their legacy still shapes relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers at both the level of personal relationships and government policy. The TRC demanded Indigenous representation on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to ensure that, moving forward, “Indigenous history, heritage values, and memory practices [will be integrated] into Canada’s national heritage and history.” Halifax officials who supported the removal of the Cornwallis statue were responding to this call to action.

Some Mi’kmaw activists have made a direct connection between the Cornwallis scalping order and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The link between the 18th-century directive and the ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples reflects Indigenous ways of understanding the past that do not make a clear distinction between past, present, and future. Following Indigenous perspectives could help us work through these debates. John Joe Sark, Keptin of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council offers sage guidance. Sark is demanding the removal of Jeffery Amherst commemorations from national sites in PEI and rejects arguments that this would change the past. He states: “It’s not erasing history; it’s exposing history.” A meaningful dialogue about commemoration that incorporates diverse perspectives of the past should also expose how monument builders deliberately excluded the experiences of marginalized peoples.

Those who commissioned, paid for, allowed, and crafted the Lee and Cornwallis monuments could not envision a future in which African Americans and Indigenous peoples would play a meaningful role. This still matters today. A great deal is at stake if we don’t take seriously the criticisms of Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists. They are crucial voices in the debates about whether or not we should continue to celebrate the contributions of white leaders who held views that no longer accord with the future we hope to create.

Postscript: Renaming the CHA John A. Macdonald Prize

At the 2018 AGM, members of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) debated a motion to change the name of the John A. Macdonald Prize to the Canadian Historical Association Prize for Best Book in Canadian History. CHA President Adele Perry explained its history: Manulife and the CHA established the $5000 prize in 1977; it was fully funded by the financial company until 1982. Macdonald, as Manulife’s website proudly explains, was also its first president. It’s not clear, however, how they agreed to the name. Donald Wright suggests that in 1977 Macdonald was still a usable figure to both Anglophones and Francophones.[6] Since 2009, the prizewinner has also received a Governor General’s Award for Scholarly Research.

There was surprisingly little discussion of the difference between history and commemoration during the CHA debate. John Reid was an exception. He explained that he had supported the Mi’kmaw fight to relocate the Cornwallis statue because of Cornwallis’s role in promoting settler colonialism in the 18th century. He spoke in favour of the CHA motion because Macdonald had played an even more significant role in cultivating the settler colonial state. He did not think that the CHA should be commemorating him in these times.

It was Laura Ishiguro’s appeal to support the motion that set the tone for the discussion. I cannot write as eloquently as Dr. Ishiguro speaks, so I will summarize two of her key points. First, she explained that the CHA is not a safe space for Indigenous and racialized historians, many of whom are also emerging scholars. Second, she argued that voting against the motion to remove Macdonald’s name from the prize would send a strong message that the CHA places the commemoration of a political figure opposed to their ancestors’ place in Canadian society ahead of making them feel welcome in the profession.

Some have publicly declared that they will not renew their membership. To colleagues who deride the decision, I submit that there is a lesson to be drawn from those in Halifax who supported the removal of the statue in order to build meaningful relationships with Mi’kmaw people. A majority vote against the motion would have been an impediment to honest conversations about addressing racism in academe and working towards becoming an inclusive profession.

Nancy Janovicek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Calgary. She is the founder of the Annie Gale Project, a community-led initiative to commission, create, and install a bronze of Hannah (Annie) Gale, the first woman elected to Calgary City Council.

We acknowledge the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. These are the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. This includes the Siksika, the Piikuni, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations. The City of Calgary is also home to Metis Nation of Alberta, Region III.


[1] John Tosh, Why History Matters (London: Palgrave, 2008).

[2] Daniel Paul, We were not the Savages: A Micmac Perspective on the Collision of European and Aboriginal Civilizations (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1993): 112

[3] For a debate on renaming the school see the Active History posts by Paul. W. Bennett, “Renaming Schools: What Does Sanitizing History Teach Students?” 18 July 2011 and Thomas Peace, “Renaming Schools: A sign of a society in dialogue with its past,” 19 July 2011.

[4] John Reid, “The Three Lives of Edward Cornwallis,” Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 16 (2013), 19 – 45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] E-mail correspondence with author, 2 August 2018. Many thanks to Donald Wright who went to the UNB library – while working late on campus to meet a deadline – to look up the announcement of the award in the 1977 CHA Newsletter. Marielle Campeau shared her notes on the motions about CHA prizes.

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