Nova Scotia

Halifax's Mi'kmaq poet laureate calls council's decision on Cornwallis 'disrespectful'

Halifax's Mi'kmaq poet laureate says she's disappointed at council's decision on public sites named after Edward Cornwallis. She's writing a poem to the councillors who rejected a motion to review the issue.

Rebecca Thomas is writing a poem addressing the 8 councillors who voted down the motion

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 (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Halifax's first Mi'kmaq poet laureate says she is disappointed — but not surprised — city council rejected a debate over reviewing public sites named for Edward Cornwallis, the city's controversial founder.

Rebecca Thomas criticized the all-white group who appointed her to the role in March, noting the "sweet irony" of some concerns that history would be erased in favour of an indigenous narrative.

"It's disrespectful," Thomas said in an interview Wednesday.

"The only difference between those council fears and our fears is that council has the power ... to veto those conversations."

Further Cornwallis debate 'inevitable'

In an 8-7 vote late Tuesday, council rejected Coun. Waye Mason's proposal seeking a discussion on updating municipal landmarks bearing Cornwallis's name.

Mason told reporters he was disappointed, but said ongoing debate about Cornwallis is "inevitable."

"We're going to continue to have that discussion, we just haven't decided to have it at this point," he said.

The Mi'kmaq have long called for removal of tributes to Cornwallis, some calling his actions against their ancestors a "genocide." Cornwallis founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq men, women and children, in response to an attack on colonists.

The Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre and mostly black Cornwallis Street Baptist church petitioned council to re-name Cornwallis Street, partly inspiring Tuesday's motion.

During the council debate, some members, including Mayor Mike Savage, said they fielded angry phone calls from citizens who want to preserve the city's heritage.

'We're all trying to do the right thing'

The mayor urged councillors to not delay the discussion.

"Maybe it's time that we try to figure out a way that we can all discuss a difficult issue and there may be a resolution," Savage said.

"This doesn't make a case [for] who is empathetic or not empathetic to a certain cause. I think we're all trying to do the right thing."

Some councillors raised concerns about re-opening old wounds, angering citizens and denigrating Halifax's history.

"He's the founder of Halifax and we're just going to whitewash it all?" Coun. Linda Mosher asked. "Everybody's got their own opinion, and I think the truth is somewhere in between. So let's get the truth, but let's not erase it."

Coun. Jennifer Watts said the tide of anti-Cornwallis sentiment is already bringing changes to her district. Halifax Regional School Board voted unanimously to rename Cornwallis Junior High in 2011.

The debate has resonated across Nova Scotia, of which Cornwallis was once governor.

Cornwallis River signage removed

Last year, Premier Stephen McNeil had signs for the Cornwallis River removed out of sensitivity for the nearby Annapolis Valley First Nation.

A group calling for the river to be renamed is presenting a plan to regional councils next month.

"I'm sure people will be watching," McNeil said of the city proposal at the legislature Friday. "I don't think we can eliminate our history — good or bad. The reality of it is, we need to be sensitive at times."

Thomas said Wednesday she hopes to add an indigenous voice to the conversation. She said she is writing a poem addressing the eight councillors who voted down the motion, inspired by Coun. Matt Whitman's comments that Cornwallis "was not perfect."

"If I were to use that as a defence case, 'I accidentally killed your family — but hey, I'm not perfect,"' she said. "It sounds ludicrous because it is. So to use that as a justification for why we should keep honouring a man is insane."

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