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The Cornwallis statue debate

Removing the statue of Edward Cornwallis from its downtown Halifax location has been the subject of debate for years.

On one side, people say that the statue honours a man who took Mi’kmaq land and committed various atrocities against the Mi’kmaq people, including scalping. On the other side, people say that Cornwallis is historically significant to the founding of Halifax and that removing the statue is equivalent to erasing history.

To properly understand this debate, it is important to know the context in which the statue was built.

Dr. John Reid, a St. Mary’s University history professor who has studied Cornwallis, says that during the interwar period, members of the Nova Scotia elite were worried that allegiance to the British Empire was weakening. To counter this, they wanted a symbol that would renew Nova Scotia’s sense of belonging to the empire.

“The idea was to rebrand Cornwallis as the founder of Halifax, and to attribute to Cornwallis heroic qualities that justified him being put on a statue,” said Reid.

The statue was unveiled in 1931, on the 182nd anniversary of the arrival of Cornwallis in Nova Scotia. Dr. Reid says that before the statue, there had only been one stray reference to Cornwallis as the founder of Halifax.

The statue first became controversial in 1993, when Mi’kmaq writer Daniel Paul released the book We Were Not the Savages. Paul recounts the treatment of the Mi’kmaq people by Cornwallis and the early British settlers. Among other things, the book describes the British taking land from the Mi’kmaq people, attacking their communities with the aim to drive them out of Nova Scotia, and putting a bounty on their heads.

The latter is known as the scalping proclamation. It is named after the practice of killing someone, then cutting off their scalp in order to have proof of the kill and receive compensation. While the British use of this tactic was widespread, there is also evidence of Mi’kmaq raids on Dartmouth where British people were scalped.

Dr. Reid says the issue at the heart of the conflict between the British and the Mi’kmaq people was land. “The British were taking territory that had never been given to them.”

Aside from his dealing with the Mi’kmaq people, Cornwallis was in charge of establishing a new British settlement that would rival the French settlement, Louisbourg. After establishing Halifax, he governed the settlement for three years before requesting to return to England.

So how does the statue resonate today, now that we have a better understanding of the historical context of the man?

Lara Lewis, a Mi’kmaq student at King’s College, thinks the statue should be taken down. She says the statue is “an excellent way to make someone feel less human.”

When asked about the idea that removing the statue could be erasing history, she countered by pointing out that the statue does not portray an accurate history of Cornwallis in the first place.

Daniel Paul has a similar view. He thinks that if First Nations and white people want to have a better relationship, the statue should be removed. He says, “I don’t see much in reconciliation when you have a statue and a park named after a colonial individual that made an effort to exterminate a race of people, The Mi’kmaq people.”

There is also concern about the message the statue sends about Cornwallis. Dr. Reid says, “When you have somebody on a pedestal in public place of that kind, then what you are doing essentially is validating that person.” He also says that continued presence of the Cornwallis statue normalises the colonial process.

With his chest puffed out and his head held high, the statue makes Cornwallis look noble. There is no mention of scalping, taking Mi’kmaq land, or 20th century royalists framing him as the heroic founder of Halifax.

Last year, in Ukraine, a heroic-looking statue of Vladimir Lenin was transformed into Darth Vader. This happened after factory workers complained about having to walk by the Soviet era leader everyday on their way to work. So far, there have been no proposals to transform the Cornwallis statue.

Both Dr. Reid and Daniel Paul say the statue should be taken down and put in a museum. Dr. Reid says that doing this would not be an act of hiding history as some people suggest. A museum is a “vibrant public space, we could even put up interpretive panels for discussion and debate,” he says

Currently, there are no plans to remove the statue. But the attention that this debate has garnered over the years shows the importance of public symbols and who our society chooses to honour.


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