Nova Scotia·Opinion

Edward Cornwallis's statue and the power of two-eyed seeing

How a dose of 'two-eyed seeing' can help Nova Scotia figure out what to do with Halifax's Edward Cornwallis statue.

Halifax's controversial statue can become a Cogswell Interchange for the mind

A statue of Edward Cornwallis faces England in Halifax's Cornwallis Park. (Canadian Press)

Eran Halperin conducted an interesting psychological experiment to learn if hearing people speak about their own weaknesses can lead to frank discussions that solve difficult issues. 

He has reason to be interested: he's an associate professor at the School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Israel, right in the middle of one of our world's most intractable conflicts.

He gave Israelis an article describing a Palestinian leader criticizing the corruption in Gaza and the West Bank and shortcomings in the Palestinian education system. He also gave articles to Palestinians featuring Israeli leaders being self-critical.

When Palestinians heard the Israeli being self-critical, they suddenly wanted to hear more of his concerns about the conflict in general. Israelis likewise wanted to hear about Palestinian concerns after being primed with a self-critical Palestinian.

Psychologically, they were prepared to start talking about tough issues — and to hear what others had to say. Mi'kmaq people call that "two-eyed seeing." 

In Canada, those of us with European roots were given the chance for a heavy dose of self-criticism in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In my hometown of Halifax, we white Canadians have an excellent opportunity to do a bit of cultural self-criticism that can unlock our minds toward a happier, more peaceful future. Oddly enough, it comes in the form of a statue to Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax and would-be exterminator of the Mi'kmaq people.

His statue, erected in the 1930s by the city train station, dominates Cornwallis Park in the south end. He stands on a tall plinth in the centre. As a Mi'kmaq woman pointed out to me, every path leads to him, compelling people to stand at his feet as they cross the park.

A brass plaque says he was a British military officer who founded Halifax in 1749.

Another pedestrian follows the paths in Cornwallis Park to the feet of the city's founder. (The Canadian Press)

It doesn't mention his scalping proclamation, which was one of his first acts of council in the new city. He offered a government cash bounty for the scalps of any Mi'kmaq person, child, woman or man, young or old, and soon mercenaries harried the countryside to reap the reward.

His plan was to permanently drive the Mi'kmaq out of Nova Scotia to secure it for British settlement.

Cornwallis wasn't ashamed of the policy, as it was the cornerstone of his plan for securing North America for the British. It's interesting that the statue builders left it out.

Last week, Progressive Conservative MLA Allan MacMaster asked Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil to urge Halifax to remove the statue as a gesture of respect to our Mi'kmaq citizens.

Halifax Coun. Waye Mason is looking at doing just that as a part of redeveloping the park. He promises to bring a motion in 2016.

'This land is my inheritance'

But won't removing the statue of Halifax's founder mean we're erasing history?

Cornwallis earned his place in the history books — that's why I wrote his first biography in 2013 (Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax).

My ancestors arrived in Halifax in 1752 after Cornwallis sent word across Europe that he needed "Foreign Protestants" to settle Nova Scotia. 

The Tattries fled France as religious refugees, arriving in Halifax with nothing. They helped build the city, then helped build Lunenburg and Tatamagouche. They died here, and their bones became the soil from which I sprang two centuries later.

I feel this place "is mine, this land is my inheritance to be my country forever." I have come from it "as certainly as the grass," as has my two-year-old son, and as will my baby daughter this spring. 

The quotes in the last paragraph come from open letters written by Mi'kmaq people to Edward Cornwallis in 1750. They told him if he forced them from the mainland of Mi'kma'ki they would surely die. 

Their love for this land, their deep connection to it in stories and songs, resonates with me. I'm a white Canadian, but I feel much more akin to those long-ago Mi'kmaq writers than I ever did to the English aristocrat Cornwallis, despite spending years poring over his letters and public statements. 

Cornwallis Junior High is seen in Halifax on Thursday, June 23, 2011. The Halifax Regional School Board renamed it Halifax Central Junior High. (The Canadian Press)

What did my ancestors think about Cornwallis? 

The simple truth is that we don't know. The British king told Cornwallis to come here and found Halifax, so he did. He was not elected. He represented the Crown, not the citizens.

I read every letter he wrote in Halifax, and read the minutes from every council meeting he led, and can't recall a single occasion where he sought the opinion of regular people.

A Cogswell Interchange for the mind

We do know that people often have truly terrible ideas. In the 1960s Halifax's city leaders decided to pave the historic waterfront and replace it with a highway. 

Luckily, they stopped — but not before building the famous Road to Nowhere known as the Cogswell Interchange.

The Cogswell Interchange today. (CBC)

We've decided to right that wrong by tearing down the interchange and building something nice that we — and our children — will enjoy.

It's time to do the same thing with relics like the Cornwallis statue. The statue is a road that takes us nowhere. Let's take it down.

Once he's foot-level with the rest of us, let's invite people to look him in the eye, take a photo, and share it online. 

Then let's find the statue a home that makes sense — perhaps in the Citadel Hill National Historic Site (a military museum for a military man) or at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (reflecting his role in recruiting Halifax's first immigrants).

We have the truth. It's time for reconciliation.

Jon Tattrie is the author of Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax. He's a freelance journalist who regularly works for CBC.

About the Author

Jon Tattrie

Reporter

Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of two novels and five non-fiction books. He won the RTDNA's 2015 Adrienne Clarkson Award. Find him at www.jontattrie.ca