Nova Scotia

A town celebrated for its heritage is urged to look at the history it's ignored

A community advocate in Lunenburg, N.S. says it's time the historic town finds ways to honour Mi'kmaw and Black history. Jessika Hepburn says their contributions have been largely ignored.

Petition to rename Cornwallis, Creighton streets in Lunenburg, N.S., gets more than 800 signatures

A Lunenburg resident has asked town council to consider renaming streets and installing interpretive panels that reflect the full history of the community. (Gary Yim/Shutterstock)

In Lunenburg, N.S., a town that enthusiastically embraces its seafaring history, you'll find few public displays celebrating the Black and Mi'kmaw people who lived there.

Jessika Hepburn is trying to change that. 

The community advocate who lives in the town started a petition earlier this month calling for the renaming of Cornwallis and Creighton streets to reflect the town's Black and Mi'kmaw history — and Hepburn says that's just the beginning. 

She hopes the petition encourages residents of the town — a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site — to have frank conversations about racism and discrimination in the wake of the larger Black Lives Matter movement.

"My goal with this petition is to make it very clear that there are lots of people also in our community that are willing to have these conversations, and we're going to keep pushing until it's not a problem anymore," Hepburn said. 

Jessika Hepburn is a community advocate who started the petition. (Submitted by Jessika Hepburn)

Hepburn, who is of Black and Jewish heritage, said she's not always felt welcome or safe in the town, and the petition, which now has more than 800 signatures, is further proof of that. 

"While there's been hundreds of signatures in support of the petition … there's also been a backlash of hateful messages, threats, insults, that I'm not intelligent, that I'm not sane," Hepburn said during a presentation to Lunenburg town council on Tuesday.

She said she was also banned from a local community Facebook page and barred from sharing the petition there.  

On Tuesday, Hepburn asked members of council to show their solidarity with people of colour by issuing a statement that condemns racism and forming an anti-racism initiative, among other things. 

Who was Sylvia?

Hepburn recommends changing the street named after Col. John Creighton to honour Sylvia, the Black woman who helped defend Lunenburg when it was raided by Americans in 1782, but who was never recognized for it. 

Sylvia was a slave who hid ammunition in her apron and carried it from Creighton's house to the fort during the battle. An account of her bravery is included in the book, We're Rooted Here and They Can't Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women's History.

"When the house came under fire, Sylvia threw herself on top of the colonel's son to protect him with her own body," the author wrote. 

Sylvia died in an unmarked grave in Halifax ... there's still no recognition of her in the Town of Lunenburg.- Jessika Hepburn, community advocate

And yet, Hepburn said Sylvia's story has largely been forgotten in town.

"Sylvia died in an unmarked grave in Halifax. We're 238 years later and there's still no recognition of her in the Town of Lunenburg that's visible," she said.

Hepburn also suggests removing Edward Cornwallis's name from the town, and changing the street to E'se'katik, the Mi'kmaq name for what would become Lunenburg, which translates to "at the place of clams."

Cornwallis was the governor of Nova Scotia who founded Halifax in 1749, and issued a so-called "scalping proclamation," offering a bounty to anyone who killed Mi'kmaw men, women and children. 

Hepburn also wants to see interpretive panels installed in town that reflect this history. 

Town says it's committed to doing better

The mayor of Lunenburg said the town will consult with Black and Mi'kmaq members of the community, and look into forming some kind of committee or task force to address issues of racism, including the possible renaming of streets.

But what that group will look like and when it will start is still up in the air, said Mayor Rachel Bailey.

Bailey said the town is committed to doing better and that begins with consultation.

Mayor Rachel Bailey said staff have been asked to consult with diverse members of the community to decide on next steps. (CBC)

"We are not looking to do this within our own small circle, council and staff," she said. "We are looking to consult with those people who will tell us what we need to do to make sure that we see some positive movement in the right direction."

She said she was upset to hear about the backlash Hepburn faced to the petition. 

"It's alarming and upsetting and disturbing. I've had other members of marginalized groups speak to me about their own personal experiences of discrimination and or racism, and it's always hurtful," Bailey said.

A staff report is expected to be presented at the next council meeting at the end of August.

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With files from CBC's Information Morning

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