When writer Jon Tattrie began exploring Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, he learned a lot about his own roots, and our shared origins
Afterthought: No defence for CornwallisBy Chris Benjamin | Jun 1, 2012
Halifax must face the fact that its founder was a bad person, by any standard.
In an opinion piece in the Chronicle Herald this spring, Daniel Paul ruffled some feathers with his argument that Halifax should acknowledge Edward Cornwallis’ crimes against humanity, his attempted extermination of the Mi’kmaq, regardless of its context in the past.
Paul made a rhetorical error. He invoked the WMD of argument: the Hitler comparison. “Should the murder of Europe’s Jews be deemed defensible because it was related to the attitudes of the times?” he wrote.
I’ve made the same mistake, though Paul was wise enough not to mention Germany’s greatest shame by name. Regardless, however sound the logic, invoking the Hitler comparison will hurt your cause. You name drop the Führer, you lose your audience as surely as if you’d screamed, “Eeee-VIL!” into the ear of a passing stranger, in the Kevin McDonald voice of that old Kids in the Hall sketch.
Yet, Paul’s point is astute and valid. There is a double standard at play in how we view history. There’s everybody else, and then there’s Hitler.
With Hitler, no amount of context justifies the man’s evil. If anything, heeding the context—a first world war that was never properly resolved; a desperate nation left with nothing; anger, hatred, prejudice; and the wrong psychopath at the wrong time–makes us more vigilant and aware of potential reproductions, emerging and future holocausts. As it should be.
So, why then do we think the racist, arrogant views of the day justify what Cornwallis did to the Mi’kmaq, the Scots (before coming here he ruthlessly crushed the Jacobite risings, repressed their culture and forcefully dismantled the ancient clan system, killing thousands in battle and slaughtering survivors) or anybody else?
Perhaps, if we review the man’s life objectively, we will find he was less psychopathic, and more a well-connected, arrogant buffoon with too much power, compared to Hitler. If anything, Cornwallis is evidence of a psychopathic culture in his time—one that thought the annihilation of a people was good policy, that a land without a king was free candy.
But does that excuse Cornwallis? Does our current culture’s equally psychotic beliefs, that the Earth is there for us to pollute and debase for financial gain, excuse our elected and appointed officials from their disproportionate role in leading the plunder? History will judge them as harshly as it does Cornwallis. And as well it should.
The defenders of the Cornwallis name say they are protecting history. To extend Daniel Paul’s analogy, how many Adolfs do you know? That name died in 1945. Nobody names things for him. To even use his given name any more is unthinkable. Yet we have not forgotten about him. Everyone knows who the last famous Hitler was, and what he did. His history has been picked apart and preserved for all to know in books, movies, song, legend and the occasional columnist’s rant.
“Oh, but now we’ll have to rename everything,” goes the next argument.
It’s not that bad an idea. Taking the names of racist bastards off our institutions and infrastructure is how we show that we have come to better understand our past, learned from it and grown up a little bit.
“When does it stop, all this…renaming?” many have asked.
That’s a good question. Does it stop when genocide stops? It hasn’t yet. Does it stop when we stop polluting and destroying the Earth? We’re very far from that. Does it stop when evil stops? It’s such a subjective term. But as long as men and women are incompetent, ignorant, arrogant, cruel or evil, someone will name something after them, and someone in the future will say, “Um, I’d rather not be in a place named after the dude who slaughtered my ancestors.”
So maybe we just keep learning from our history, growing as we learn, and occasionally changing the names of things.
Or alternatively, we could stop learning altogether.