Sunday September 24, 2017

'We're not changing history': Halifax's poet laureate wants us to rethink who we honour with statues

"I walk by that statue and it makes me shudder," said Halifax poet laureate Rebecca Thomas about the Edward Cornwallis statue in downtown Halifax.

"I walk by that statue and it makes me shudder," said Halifax poet laureate Rebecca Thomas about the Edward Cornwallis statue in downtown Halifax. (Rebecca Thomas/Facebook)

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Discussions of which Canadians should be celebrated in statues, and as namesakes for buildings is sweeping the nation.

One of the voices speaking up is Rebecca Thomas, Halifax's poet laureate and a Mi'kmaq activist. She has been advocating for the renaming of Cornwallis Square in downtown Halifax, and the removal of the Edward Cornwallis statue.

Cornwallis was a military officer who founded Halifax for the British in 1749, but that same year he issued a scalping proclamation, offering a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi'kmaq person.

"I walk by that statue and it makes me shudder. If I [were] in that time period, I would not be safe to move around downtown Halifax … because my scalp [would be] worth a certain amount of money," said Thomas.  

"Just because I happen to be a different … ethnicity than the colonizer."

Edward Cornwallis's statue was erected in the 1930s.

Edward Cornwallis's statue was erected in the 1930s in Downtown Halifax. (CBC)

In addition to Cornwallis, Thomas says Canada needs to rethink how other controversial figures are commemorated, such as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who was an Indian agent, and Sir John A. Macdonald, who is credited with creating residential schools.

For Thomas, removing statues and namesakes is an important step in reconciliation.

"We're not changing history, we're removing these kinds of venerations and honours … and respecting an additional perspective and the existence of Indigenous people," she explained.

By removing the statues and namesakes of controversial figures, Thomas said Indigenous people will not be forced "to honour these people who played a significant role in their eradication and assimilation into Canada."

Thomas added that we need to rethink who we celebrate, so in the future Indigenous youth can know their stories are important.

"I don't have kids right now, but maybe one day I will and I want them to understand that they are just as important and significant and their histories matter and … are represented."