After exhausting all other options, Halifax Council finally did the right thing and removed the statue of Edward Cornwallis from a downtown park.
In addition to founding the city, Cornwallis had a bloody legacy, putting a bounty on Nova Scotia’s Mi’kmaq and before that, taking part (as a senior officer) in a campaign of murder, rape, and expulsion against rebellious Scottish Highlanders. For many, the statue was a constant reminder of a brutal legacy. Removing the statue was an act of compassion and an important symbol of reconciliation.
I applaud Council for the move. But it’s not the end of the matter. There is still much to do. You’ll still find bloody-minded colonial rulers venerated around Nova Scotia.
Cornwallis’s name adorns streets and whole communities. Jeffrey Amherst, the man who lends his name to the town of Amherst, was every bit as murderous (in one letter, he recommends giving natives smallpox-tainted blankets to spread the plague and decimate the population).
The Duke of Cumberland (the guy Cumberland County is named after) was known as “Butcher Cumberland” for his atrocities against the Scots, including ordering the murder of wounded and surrendering rebels.
And I could go on. North America’s colonial history is full of brutalities against native populations and anyone who pushed against the status quo. That’s our history, and history can’t and shouldn’t be rewritten.
That’s why you’ll never hear me call for expunging those names from history books. But people don’t learn history from road signs and statues. When we name a community after a man, we’re honouring him. That’s why you see lots of things named for Churchill and none named for Hitler. Both men are part of our history, but we don’t venerate them equally.
Whenever I talk about this, I hear the same two rebuttals.
First: So, all white British men are bad?
Nope. These specific white British men were bad, and we don’t need to celebrate them. Do you hear me calling for the removal of the statue of noted white British man Joseph Howe? For the renaming of Joseph Howe Drive?
You do not, because Howe was not an awful person. Worthy honourees abound. Why neglect them in favour of brutes like Cornwallis, Cumberland, and Amherst?
Second: What about the French and Mi’kmaq who scalped the British?
They’re irrelevant to this conversation. There are no towns named for them. There are no statues of them. We don’t celebrate them, and we shouldn’t. Yet you know of them, so they clearly remain in our history. Let’s give Amherst and his ilk the same treatment.
Confronting our legacies, examining what we’re really built upon, is a key part of growing up for any country. Countries like New Zealand are already far deeper into this process. They’ve worked hard to pay their historical debt to the country’s native Maori people. When appropriate, they’ve renamed communities. They’ve revamped and replaced monuments, so they reflect the stories of all citizens. They’re trying hard to tell their whole history, and they’re richer for it.
We can continue on our journey to becoming a better, fairer Nova Scotia by admitting our history to ourselves. Not pretending that this was an empty land until noble British settlers arrived and built civilization.
We’re mature enough to admit that our history has villains as well as heroes, that we have deeds to celebrate and crimes to atone. We must understand that reconciliation is a long and ongoing process, not as simple as removing one statue.
History is giving us an opportunity to do better and build a Nova Scotia that respects all its founders, not just the white male British ones.