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Why honour Edward Cornwallis?

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Trevor J. Adams, Photo: Tammy Fancy

Trevor J. Adams, Photo: Tammy Fancy

The argument in favour of keeping the statue of Edward Cornwallis in downtown Halifax is based on the fact that the mid-1700s were a brutal time. An ugly frontier war raged across the Maritimes. Nova Scotia’s native Mi’kmaq allied with the French to fight the British colonists encroaching on their homeland.

Into this maelstrom came Halifax’s founding father, an aristocratic English army officer named Edward Cornwallis. Named governor of Nova Scotia, he soon decided to win the seething conflict by putting a bounty on the scalps of all Mi’kmaq people.

The government of Nova Scotia paid people to kill Mi’kmaq men, women, and children, combatants or not, in any circumstance. Yes, Cornwallis wasn’t the first to embrace that practice. But he is the only advocate of genocide to have a prominent statue in the heart of downtown Halifax.

The Cornwallis Statue (in Cornwallis Park, in front of the train station) is an embarrassment, and an insult to every Mi’kmaw person. It glorifies Cornwallis as a hero, with no mention of his genocidal legacy. If the statue belongs anywhere, it’s in a museum with the other relics, where it has proper context.

People who think the statue is fine where it is have two standard objections to removing it.

“You can’t rewrite history.” No, you can’t. And removing the statue, to put it in a more appropriate setting with historical context, isn’t rewriting history. It’s writing the full history. That argument is like saying that every historical artifact must be left exactly where it’s found. It makes no sense. (Also, to take it to its logical extreme, Germany should still be covered in swastikas and statues of Hitler, because removing them would be rewriting history.)

“Sure, what Cornwallis did was brutal by our standards, but you have to look at him in a historical context.” That argument would make perfect sense if we were debating whether Halifax should have built a statue of Cornwallis 250 years ago. That statue might have belonged in that context. If you need historical context to appreciate the statue, then it belongs in a museum that can provide the context. Because in Halifax in 2016, that statue is simply an unworthy veneration of a bloody murderer.

And there is no historical context in which genocide is normal behaviour. If there was, humanity wouldn’t have survived the invention of the spear. These brutal actions were Cornwallis’ hallmark, not something that everyone was doing because it was the 1700s and that’s just how they rolled.

Before coming to Halifax, Cornwallis’s claim to fame was his role in suppressing rebellious Scottish Highlanders during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Rape, mass murder, forced starvation, and ethnic cleansing were his weapons of choice. He committed those atrocities against his fellow British citizens before exporting his skills to Nova Scotia.

And if none of that convinces you we should remove the statue, ask yourself some questions. How much does this statue of Edward Cornwallis really mean to me? How does that statue make Halifax a better place? How does that statue enrich my life? Even if this statue doesn’t matter to me, seeing it there is an insult to many of my fellow Nova Scotians, so why not have compassion for them and remove it?


 

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