The suggestion Edward Cornwallis, a British military officer and one of the founders of Halifax, was justified in offering a bounty for the scalps of Mi'kmaq risks justifying violence against Indigenous people today, says a leading Indigenous lawyer.
"I think Indigenous people in Canada are No. 1 on the target list for this type of far-right rhetoric and activity and potential violence and actual violence," Katherine Hensel told CBC News Network's Power & Politics.
Hensel was responding to an interview on Wednesday's edition of Power & Politics in which Gavin McInnes, a co-founder of Proud Boys — a so-called "Western chauvinist" organization associated with the far right — defended Cornwallis's scalping proclamation.
"Can you see why Cornwallis issued a bounty on the Mi'kmaq?" McInnes asked guest host Hannah Thibedeau. "What happened with the Mi'kmaq was the French were using them to fight the English and they were kicking our butts. Cornwallis after several murders said, 'Let's issue a bounty.'"
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The exchange stems from an incident on Saturday when a number of Indigenous people and activists held a protest at the Edward Cornwallis statue in downtown Halifax. The protest was disrupted by five off-duty military members wearing black polo shirts, carrying a Red Ensign and referring to themselves as Proud Boys.
In defending his group's actions on Canada Day, McInnes made some controversial comments that CBC News acknowledged at the outset of Thursday's program were not sufficiently challenged at the time his interview aired.
"Ahead of that conversation we failed to inform you of some anti-Jewish sentiments McInnes has expressed in the past," Thibedeau also told viewers Thursday.
Hensel said that the Mi'kmaq in Cornwallis's time were under extreme lethal threat and many were under the subject of violent attacks.
"It was not a safe time for them," she said. " And that reality has continued, for Indigenous people across the country until today.
"Indigenous people in Canada do not enjoy security of person and liberty in the same manner that non-Indigenous people in Canada do. And that's been continuous since Cornwallis's time," she said.
'Deep and troubling connotations'
Referring to the protest, Hensel said that while it was held in a public place, and anyone could attend, the way the Proud Boys approached the event, carrying a Red Ensign with all of them dressed in the same shirt, was provocative.
"The manner in which they approached it, as a group, wearing with an insignia and with a flag, a colonial and confederate flag that has deep and troubling connotations for Indigenous people," she said. "Their approach would have been disruptive and potentially threatening for Indigenous people engaging in the ceremony."
The Red Ensign, a flag with the Union Jack in the upper left corner and the Canadian coat of arms on a red background, was recognized, along with the Union Jack, as Canada's flag until the adoption of the Maple Leaf as the national flag in 1965.
Some monarchists and traditionalists still rue the dropping of the ensign. In 2007, the Conservative government announced the ensign would fly with the Maple Leaf above the Vimy monument in France.
Richard Blackwolf, the national president of the Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association (CAV), told CBC News Wednesday that he hoped the incident would not affect the military careers of the men involved.
"I mean they just showed up there with a flag. They didn't beat up on anybody. It's not like that," he said.
Hensel was non-committal about what should happen to the Proud Boys members at the Halifax protest, saying any punishment should "depend on the level of insight and responsiveness that they show into the effect of their own conduct.
"This is an opportunity for growth, both for these individuals and for people across the country as they observe what's happening and how these young men, a, are dealt with and, b, respond to the consequences of the actions that they've taken," she said.