Continuing the Cornwallis Conversation

As a descendant of European protestant settlers in Nova Scotia, who arrived here in June 1751, I have to say I have no recollection of spending  any great length of time on the history of the Founder of Halifax, Edward Cornwallis. I would have to say I have been shy to enter into a debate or discussion about him in particular, favouring the ideology of kindness and understanding to those affected, when the issue of his statue comes up.

But as the controversy continues around this statue, and whether it should stay or go, I found myself intrigued to learn more about the founding figure, and to make my own assumptions about his role and importance to us. If he was so important to us, why did I not have a grasp of his contribution to our history?


Because of Truth and Reconciliation, we are being confronted with our past. And some of us are endeavoring to understand it, while others are blindly defending it. It has caused immense strain for both sides as we go through the difficult, confusing and sometimes seemingly unfair interpretation of our role today with respect to the last 524 years gone by.

From a personal perspective, I have never felt that our First Nations people were anyone but my fellow man. I knew they were here before us. I knew they had a long history of culture, language, values. The First Nations people I knew growing up, came to school with us when I was a young girl in the 1970s. There was information on their history and displays of their artifacts in museums and our history lessons taught us about the settlement of Nova Scotia, mostly concentrating on fur trading and the varied battle with “Indians” across Canada was not delved into too deeply. We certainly touched on it a bit more than all that, I am sure, but not enough that I was ever impacted by the way our indigenous people were treated.

mi'kmaq drawingThere was a hydro dam repair on a river near our home when I was a child, and we trekked that river and the shores of the neighboring lake one weekend in the late ’70s or early ’80s to find the drawings in the rocks discovered by University groups when the dam was opened and the lake was drained. They are submersed again as the Power company controls the lake, but I have photos and memories of the trek and the drawings.

I never knew what the Treaties were. Understanding Peace and Friendship, from the treaty perspective, is fairly new to me. But what I will say is that every First Nations member I have ever met, has been kind and friendly, and gracious with me. Never treating me like I might be an enemy, but rather welcoming the opportunity to know me. And patient with me, as I try to absorb and recognize their side of ever-changing dynamics in Canadian social and political relationships. We are all treaty people and I have been made to know and feel that in all my encounters with First Nations people in this province.

As the years have gone by in Halifax, where I have lived since 2008, the debate over Cornwallis has come up a few times. The Mi’kmaq and many of their supporters and allies would like to see him not honoured at all. And there has been some move to lessen the tributary use of his name on schools, a church, and roads elsewhere in NS, but he remains on a pedestal in Cornwallis Square and his name is on a street, a conference room and a chapter of the Progress Club and others. All cities are proud of their history. All of them pay tribute to the founding families, founding fathers, founding industry. But not all of these figures were quite like Cornwallis.

Cornwallis lived in Nova Scotia for less than three years. He was appointed by the British Crown to establish a new settlement, when Britain returned the Fortress at Louisburg to the French. Cornwallis was experienced in territorial battles. He had participated in the Battle of Fontenoy, during the War of the Austrian Succession, taking over command, when his commander was killed, and returning to England in shame after failure in battle and many deaths in his regiment.  He led the Pacification of the Scottish Highlands. His efforts in this assignment, which included a full fledged effort to wipe out the Jacobite Rebellion, were violent and unmerciful.

During the Clearance of the Highlands, his regiment killed and burned and decimated everything and everyone, using rape, mass murder and terror.


Edward Cornwallis

So, the battle with the Mi’kmaq was no big shift for him. And when he tired of it he left and went home, rewarded with a promotion. He was also arrested in England, when he returned there after abandoning a mission to Gibraltar, with two other colonels. He evaded persecution then, but was arrested again after abandoning a mission at Rochfort. His final years were spent as Governor of Gibraltar in spite of his failures and especially in spite of his having chickened out the first time he was assigned there. When reading the history of any of these regions, Cornwallis is often not mentioned at all, and only minimally otherwise, not quite as revered in any of his other posts, as he has been in Halifax  and Nova Scotia.

As far as founding Halifax, I wonder what people believe his accomplishments were. He searched the shores around Halifax Basin, until he decided where was the best place to start building with his 2500 settlers. But he did not discover Halifax as I have heard people state, nor the Harbour, but rather was directed here by organizers in England. The settlement at Halifax was a violation of the Peace and Friendship Treaties signed between the British and the Mi’kmaq in 1726 and 1749. An interesting fact too, is the Mi’kmaq of this part of Nova Scotia, were not included in signing the treaties. Members from mostly New Brunswick and only one Mi’kmaq band were included. The Mi’kmaq chiefs met and together wrote to Cornwallis to relate their upset, but he persisted with his task of establishing a settlement here and in other locations.

In deeper historical study of Cornwallis, he was never given the title of Founder until the 1930s, during an economic push for tourism in Nova Scotia. Prior to that, few Nova Scotians had ever heard of him. According to records, the City and the Board of Education resisted funding a statue of someone previously disregarded as being insignificant in Halifax’s history.

Surely of concern too, is the proclamation of a bounty for the scalp of any Mi’kmaq. Many today will debate that proclamation as to whether it meant men or all, but an accompanying statement by Cornwallis makes it clear enough for many. “It would be better to “root” the Micmac out of the peninsula decisively and forever.” Directives were given to scour the province looking for Mi’kmaq and 10 guineas would be paid for those captured or killed. This intent to wipe the Mi’kmaq out is what never gets mentioned but what we should consider greatly.


Governor House

They have been here for 13,000 years, and rather than treat them with respect and goodwill, they were treated as enemies and impatience with their expectation of respect, which resulted in a desire to simply remove them. Peace treaties that intended in words to promote coexistence were just guff on the part of the British. If Cornwallis were true to the treaties, a land agreement could have been proposed; he would have negotiated and compromised. They were here first after all.

I find it easy to find similarities in the Clearance of the Highlands with how the Mi’kmaq have been treated in Nova Scotia. After the clearance of the Highlands, it was illegal to wear a kilt or tartan, except in specific military dress under the Crown. The 800 year old  clan system was dismantled, and anyone found in violation would be executed. Patrols were sent to hunt down anyone sympathetic to the rebels and kill them. So, first take out the opposing power, and quickly eliminate the culture and maintain control. So a few years later, the same process began to take form in Canada. First the threat of death on rebels, and then the assimilation of First Peoples that extended into the 1960s.


A residential school in Canada

The policy of aggressive assimilation adopted by the Canadian government, was born with the idea that the First Nations needed to be as EuroCanadian as possible, to succeed. It was with this thought that residential schools were formed. Children are easier to adapt than grownups, and so the process of wiping culture out of the communities would be done by wiping it out of the minds of the children, who would then progressively pass on their new culture to their children, until the native traditions were diminished or abolished. Wiped out. And when we talk about children being easier, it was with abuse and isolation.

In my own mind, Cornwallis is seen as a massive symbol of the beginning of centuries of unfair and painful abuses of the First Nations people, by the British colonists in Canada. Since the First Nations were aligned with the Acadians and the French, one could only assume they were treated much more favourably by those settlers. Outside of certain incidents of unpleasant treatment and individual battles, the French recognized the First Nations as independent with their own cultures and governance. French law required they be treated respectfully, and they were always referred to as allies, not subjects. The French prohibited land being taken from the First Nations as if the French might deserve more to benefit from such a claim. I sometimes wonder what the country would look like if the French had been able to maintain their standing. If the British had not taken control. Would the French have continued their trend of working with the indigenous people? Would they have continued to enjoy comradery and lived peacefully with the indigenous people?

Britain did not understand the value of making friends in far places, but rather spanned the globe with a capture and control  mentality. Throughout history, the indigenous have been characterized as outsiders, intruders, leeches and inferior. This is not unique to Canada, and similar attitudes and treatments are well recorded in Australia and New Zealand. In Australia, the children of mixed relations were taken from their mothers to convert them into white citizens. Discrimination and oppression of these populations have lasting effects and behaviours in today’s society.

And that is what brings us to the debate about Cornwallis in Halifax. When the topic is brought up, there are very distinct attitudes about the perceived value and often ignored true cost of paying tribute to him in such public displays as statues and parks, streets and conference rooms. As I stated, prior to moving to Halifax, I did not possess a deep awareness of Cornwallis, or the deep rooted defense of his history in this city. As I learn more, I am troubled by the immediate defense that we cannot erase history, so removing his statue is not going to change anything. Another common response is that his statue is a learning opportunity.


Plaque on Cornwallis Statue in Halifax

A learning opportunity would mean people go there and learn the whole story of Cornwallis, including the atrocities Cornwallis and his colonists inflicted on the First Nations, as well as the Acadians. It was not placed there to let people know he came here, spread terror and domination, and left as soon as possible, because he didn’t want to live here. He was only on North American soil for 26 months. I have had sweaters and shoes longer than he stayed in Canada. But this statue was not erected to pay homage to the brutal and unrestrained violence this man displayed here and around he world on behalf of the British Crown during his short stay in any location. It does not disclose that he was violent and failed in some of his endeavors. It was erected to pay homage to the city’s first official political authority while trying to bolster pride in the city. When I hear people talk about Cornwallis, without looking more deeply into his history, one would, and some do, think he lived here for decades, perhaps until he died or at the very least until the end of the war that started while he was here. As far as educational opportunities go, his statue has not enlightened the masses, and since all of his deeds are missing from his plaque, most people have no clue about him beyond the title of Founder, or Governor.

And the First Nations of this province have expressed their desire to see him removed from iconic status. I go back to my observation that he is much more than a minor symbol of the start of extensive and long lasting mistreatment of our First Nations. Discrimination runs deep in this province, and I have been witness to varying forms of it. Most of what I see is disregard for their perspectives. For the council in Halifax, absent of any First Nation’s representation to vote down any notion of meeting the request to move Cornwallis elsewhere, or remove his name from streets, speaks more about their disregard for the feelings and impassioned reasoning by indigenous people in this province, than it does their pride in and protection of its history.

street sign

While lamenting the past is the past, one must wonder how many times have they thought of the history of Cornwallis or the founding of Halifax, especially those who live in the South End of the city. I have asked the question, and most of the time, no one can say they have been in Cornwallis Square, let alone, know enough about who he is to say where he is.  I often pass by or park next to Cornwallis Square. There is rarely ever a soul in the Park, except to protest.  A playground is always empty when I am in the area, and the statue has been a backdrop to rallies of all sorts.

My thought is, as has been suggested by others, move him. Refurbish the park as a common space, where people gather to enjoy the flowers, or children playing. Put Cornwallis in the Citadel or Pier 21, or even in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.  The park itself is on unceded Mi’kmaq territory, as is all of Nova Scotia. We are slowly embracing that fact, more poignant in recent years, though there are many who find that hard to say or refuse to.  The park could be renamed to pay tribute to a Mi’kmaq ancestor, not a warrior chief, but rather a grassroots grandmother or a spiritual healer. Perhaps a little “give” in this location would relieve the need to rename everything else, and encourage the continued coming together of people.

The leaders of this province, and the elected city councillors, need to look further than their own personal ideas and beliefs. Cornwallis is not exactly the greatest and most charitable leader this city would like to promote. Neither is he a backbone to the success this city has experienced. Those who lead, should encourage a sense of common ground, meeting in the middle, compassion, reconciliation. Removing Cornwallis from this space, and re-designating it, will not erase facts, or history, or hurt our image. It would be a strong and sure signal to all Nova Scotians and those who visit, the city is progressive and gracious. Welcoming.

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