K’jipuktuk to Halifax and back: Decolonization in the Council Chamber

By Thomas Peace

For nearly nine decades visitors to Halifax, arriving by boat or train, were welcomed to the city by Edward Cornwallis. Encased in bronze, Cornwallis stood tall, his stern face peering towards travelers pouring out from the city’s main train station and the famed Pier 21, site of first arrival to Canada for over 1.5 million immigrants. In 2018, Cornwallis was removed from his prominent perch at the south end of Barrington Street. Yesterday evening, Halifax Regional Council solidified that decision, voting to accept a report from an expert task force on the Commemoration of Edward Cornwallis and Commemoration of Indigenous History.

The Edward Cornwallis statue, in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 15, 2017. (Ben MacLeod, Wikimedia Commons)

From a global perspective, the timing of the Halifax report could not be better. Released just six weeks after protesters in Bristol toppled a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent philanthropist whose wealth was built upon the human trafficking of enslavement of Africans, the issue of public commemoration – specifically of individuals involved in imperial and corporate systems of enslavement and oppression – remains front and centre around the world.

A Surge of Power, a black resin statue of protester Jen Reid was recently placed on top Colston’s plinth in Bristol. (Sam Saunders, Wikimedia Commons)

It would be wrong, however, to consider this report solely through this present-day lens. Like the situation in Bristol, the events that eventually brought Cornwallis’s effigy down, were decades in the making. Nearly thirty years ago – in 1993 – Mi’kmaw journalist, activist, and historian Daniel Paul, called for the removal of Halifax’s so-called founder, a man who sought to build a new British society at the expense of the people whose Land the British coveted. He persisted – alongside others – for decades. These changes have been long in the making.

The report was compiled by a team of well-regarded experts on Mi’kmaw and Nova Scotian history brought together jointly by the city and the Assembly of Nova Scotia Chiefs. With such an impressive team assigned to the task, it is perhaps no surprise that the report’s conclusions are offered in a nuanced way, responding respectfully, but directly, to critics who claim their work as an attempt to ‘erase’ history.

The report’s main conclusions are threefold:

    1. In addressing a scalp bounty Cornwallis placed on Mi’kmaw heads, the committee recognized that though the 18th century North Atlantic World was a violent place, where such bounties were common, “Cornwallis’s approach and actions were exceptional” relative to this culture and that he had a “personal ambition” to root out and extirpate the Mi’kmaq from their homeland.
    2. The statue itself, which, due to an error by the sculptor, does not actually depict Cornwallis, serves more as an early twentieth-century glorification of empire than it represents anything related to the founding of Halifax almost two centuries earlier.
    3. Halifax Regional Council’s 2015 “Statement of Reconciliation,” anchored in more national trends, points to a distinctive shift in Canadian politics and society that required commemorated figures, like Cornwallis, be re-evaluated. This practice of taking down statues, the report well documents, is relatively common and somewhat longstanding.

In sum, the committee viewed their work not as one that involved probing history – though that was part of it – but rather one of understanding the nature and purpose of commemoration. What the committee’s work does, the report suggests, is carefully and responsibly “harmonize commemoration with publicly-held values, and in particular to resolve situations in which sites of commemoration may have become actively offensive to those values.”

As a result of its study, the committee made 20 recommendations to the council. Some of the higher profile recommendations were:

        • “The statue of Edward Cornwallis [will] not be returned, under any circumstances, to a position of public commemoration.”
        • That the park in which the statue was located will be renamed “Peace and Friendship Park,” and be repurposed as an educational tool to resist racism.
        • That Halifax create a civic museum, first online and – with time – through a physical location, that gives prominence to Mi’kmaw history; support should also be provided to the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre for similar purposes.
        • Several recommendations focus on broader issues of public education, language-use, and naming, such as the replacement of anglicized names such as Chebucto with their Mi’kmaw orthography (K’jipuktuk, in this case).

One recommendation, that Cornwallis Street be renamed “New Horizons Street” after a church which recently changed its name from “Cornwallis Street Baptist Church” in support of Mi’kmaw demands to end commemoration of Cornwallis, was modified by the council to solicit public input before renaming. The New Horizons Church is a longstanding and important institution for African Nova Scotians, founded as the African Baptist Church in 1832.

In making these recommendations, the report suggests that its findings are inline with public sentiments. The committee carefully lays out many of the perspectives and ideas shared with them during their public consultations. Much of this discussion aligns with similar debates elsewhere around the world. That a significant amount of public input is included in the report is a testimony to the weight the committee placed on civic engagement. Several proposals that were not endorsed by the committee are laid out to help explain how the committee reached its recommendations. One of them, which proposed to place Cornwallis in conversation with historic Mi’kmaw, Acadian, and Black leaders, was submitted by middle school students, and could make for a provocative piece of public art.

In a fortunate coincidence, the report’s acceptance yesterday coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of the police/military confrontation at Oka.  Though a direct link to the crisis in Quebec is not made, the report’s authors make clear the influence on their work of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which reported in 1996, and was created five years earlier specifically in response to these events. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the more recent report from the National Inquiry on Missing and Murders Indigenous Women and Girls are similarly cited as guiding the committee’s work. As historians, it is important to acknowledge these documents, as well as the important work Indigenous activists, artists, lawyers, and scholars (among others) have done to lay the groundwork for this report’s recommendations.

Sometimes critics of statue removal and renaming express worry that such actions are harbingers of more significant changes to come. The committee’s report, however, demonstrates that these actions follow social change, rather than lead it. It is worth citing the committee’s observations about this. According to the report, many members of the public see the removal of the Cornwallis statue as an opportunity to create a renewed relationship with Mi’kmaq and other First Peoples. Their submissions to the committee reflected a perspective that,

“the non-Indigenous community… [might now be willing to] listen to Indigenous voices, acknowledge the pain and frustration arising from portrayals of imperial and colonial activities as heroic, recognize the genocidal elements of Canada’s history, and work cooperatively to develop a more balanced and ethically justifiable approach to commemoration.” (44)

What these sentiments remind us is that Canadian society has changed significantly since Daniel Paul first proposed Cornwallis’s removal twenty seven years ago. Where there was once reluctance, Canadians, and millions of people around the world, are now increasingly demanding that civic spaces cease to actively oppress our neighbours through monuments like the one dedicated to Cornwallis’s memory.

Through the acceptance of this committee’s report, Halifax seems to be moving in the right direction. With a prominent river and town still named in his honour elsewhere in Nova Scotia, however, it remains to be seen whether the report will also be taken up across the province. Regardless of jurisdiction, the report is useful reading for anyone with a stake or interest in heritage and commemoration.

Thomas Peace is an associate professor of Canadian History at Huron University College and co-director of Huron’s Community History Centre.

Active History has covered Cornwallis quite a bit over the years:

Nancy Janovicek, What’s In a Monument? Part II: The Edward Cornwallis Monument and Reconciliation (Aug 14 2018) 

Tom Fraser, Edward Cornwallis, Public Memory, and Canadian Nationalism (Mar 13 2018)

Thomas Peace, What’s really killing Canadian History? (Mar 12 2018)

Lindsay Gibson, Thinking Historically about Canadian Commemoration Controversies (Dec 4 2017)

Lachlan MacKinnon, Commemorative Controversies: Edward Cornwallis, Collective Contention, and Historical Memory  (July 18 2013)

Thomas Peace, Renaming Schools: A sign of a society in dialogue with its past (July 19 2011) 

Paul Bennett, Renaming Schools: What Does Sanitizing History Teach Students? (July 18 2011) 

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