Nova Scotia

Edward Cornwallis naming motion narrowly defeated at Halifax council

Halifax regional council voted 8-7 against a staff report to look into whether municipal properties named after controversial Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis should be changed.

Coun. Waye Mason disappointed with close vote, predicts Cornwallis debate will return

Edward Cornwallis, a governor of Nova Scotia, was a British military officer who founded Halifax in 1749. He issued the so-called scalping proclamation the same year, in which he offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi'kmaq person. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

The name Edward Cornwallis — the controversial founder of Halifax — will remain on municipal properties after the regional council defeated a motion on Tuesday night that would have had experts and the public weigh in on the issue.

Cornwallis, a governor of Nova Scotia, was a British military officer who founded Halifax in 1749. He issued the so-called scalping proclamation the same year, in which he offered a cash bounty to anyone who killed a Mi'kmaq person.

Council debated for more than an hour on the issue, before voting 8-7 to defeat the motion.

Some called for all commemorations of the man removed from the city, while others said doing that is akin to rewriting history.

Council on Cornwallis

Coun. Waye Mason, who introduced the proposal, said he was disappointed with the final vote. He says two councillors who were absent from the meeting likely would have voted in support of his motion. 

Mason says even though the Cornwallis discussion has been put to rest for now, the debate will come back.

"Those residents, those citizens, are going to want to continue to have that discussion and it's inevitable we're going to have discussion. We just haven't decided to have it at this point," said Mason.

The debate

The debate over Edward Cornwallis was heated and passionate.

"He is the founder of this municipality, we can't escape that," said Coun. David Hendsbee. This past December, Hendsbee suggested the Cornwallis statue in downtown Halifax should be moved to the Halifax waterfront so more people could see it.

"It just seems to a lot that we're trying to revisit or rewrite history."

Questionable pasts

Coun. Linda Mosher said she received more than 100 emails against removing Cornwallis's name. She brought up several other historical figures who are honoured in Halifax, like Winston Churchill, and said their pasts were not completely clean either.

"He's the founder of Halifax and we're a municipal government and we're just going to whitewash this all?" asked Mosher. 

Cornwallis conversation important

Coun. Jennifer Watts supported Mason's motion.

"This discussion has already happened in our community. Cornwallis Junior High went through a process with the Halifax Regional School Board and that name was changed," said Watts.

"We're responsible for this community, for the things that go in our parks, for our streets for everything that we name, we are responsible for that."

Pre-council Cornwallis debate

A bronze statue of Edward Cornwallis towers above passerby's looking towards the open sea at Cornwallis park in the south end of the city. It's one of the commemorations of the founder of Halifax some would like to see removed.

Prior to the council vote, retired Colonel John Boileau — who is an author and member of the Halifax Military Preservation Society — said the claim about Cornwallis issuing a bounty for Mi'kmaq scalps has been exaggerated.

British retaliating

He says the scalping order came two days after a group of Mi'kmaq attacked a logging party of settlers, scalping two, beheading two and kidnapping another.

"In fact it is highly doubtful that the British would have paid 10 guineas for the scalp of a woman or child," said Boileau.

He also dismisses claims Cornwallis was attempting to wipe out the Mi'Kmaq or conduct genocide. Boileau says that is a 20th century term aimed at specific cases.

The case against Cornwallis

Halifax author Jon Tattrie says letters Cornwallis wrote show the founder's goal was Mi'kmaw genocide. (Stephen Puddicombe/CBC)

Jon Tattrie disagrees. He wrote Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax. Tattrie is also a reporter for CBC News in Halifax.

He says Cornwallis's aim was genocide and that it was something his letters show he was proud of at the time.

His research found Cornwallis's correspondence spoke of rape and murder as deliberate weapons of war. Tattrie says when Cornwallis came to Halifax, he was proud that he was exterminating the Mi'kmaq.

Boileau says Cornwallis was a product of his time and you can't ignore his contribution to Canada by erasing him from sight.

With files from Stephanie vanKampen