Nova Scotia

Activist returns to former Cornwallis school to acknowledge it's on Mi'kmaq land

On Wednesday, 27-year-old Rebecca Moore returned to her former junior high to declare that the school is on unceded, traditional Mi’kmaq land.

Mi'kmaw activist Rebecca Moore visits her old junior high to share message with students

Mi'kmaw activist Rebecca Moore wrote a land acknowledgment that will be read each morning at Halifax Central Junior High. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Rebecca Moore walked through the doors of her former junior high school on Wednesday, and for the first time wasn't struck by the name Edward Cornwallis.

The reminder of the English military officer who issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq people is no longer plastered across students' sweaters or over the entrance. Now, a big sign out front acknowledges that the school sits on traditional Mi'kmaq land, a message the 27-year-old shared over the loudspeaker during the morning announcements.

Moore kick-started a morning tradition that will continue at Halifax Central Junior High, which changed its name from Cornwallis Junior High in 2012.

It's one of many schools in the Halifax area that have begun recognizing Mi'kma'ki — the traditional territory of the Mi'kmaq.

"What happened here today, it's good medicine for me," said Moore. "It's helping my own personal healing journey and I know that it will help other Indigenous students who attend this school in the future."

The acknowledgment recognizes that the school sits on unceded, traditional Mi'kmaq land. (Robert Short/CBC)

Unceded land

Moore said being one of the few Mi'kmaq students at a school that bore the name Cornwallis "felt like a personal attack, and it felt like I was still experiencing genocide even in my own junior high school."

Her return this week was a reunion steeped in reconciliation as she caught up with teachers she hadn't seen in years. But it was also a reminder for the broader community, she said. 

Moore's acknowledgment includes the word "unceded," which is incredibly important, she said, because the land was never surrendered or conquered.

Rebecca Moore and principal Robert MacMillan have set a date for Moore to return to the school and continue to share with students. (Robert Short/CBC)

Halifax Regional School Board announced in 2017 that all schools in the district will start each day by recognizing that they're on Mi'kmaq lands, although they don't mention unceded land.

"I encourage the students to brush up on their knowledge and become familiar with the peace and friendship treaties here in Mi'kmaq territory because this is where we all live and that is significant historical detail," Moore said. 

Principal Robert MacMillan said it's a lesson he'll take to the school board.

"The more you do it, the more you understand," said MacMillan. "The more [students] hear that I'm hopeful the more they will appreciate our history and understand what has happened to the Indigenous peoples of Canada."

Grade 9 students Simon Rostis and Emily Stewart say hearing the announcement has made them think differently about the land they're on. (Robert Short/CBC)

Emily Stewart's older sister attended Halifax Central Junior High under its old name, and she remembers hearing that the school changed it.

Now, she understands why that happened.

"I took away that we should be more respectful with what we're doing, what we're naming the schools, and … what we're saying," said Stewart, who is in Grade 9.

A lesson for Halifax council

Moore, who organized the protest at the Cornwallis statue last summer that was disrupted by the Proud Boys, reiterated that Halifax council needs to take the monument down.

"It's dangerous for us as Indigenous people to keep that standing because as long as you have that presence there you give it that opportunity for more things like that to happen," she said, adding that council should take its cues from her former school. 

Rebecca Moore visited her former school on Wednesday for the first time in more than a decade. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"This is the true spirit of peace and friendship," she said.

Council is in the midst of forming an advisory committee that will explore what to do about the Edward Cornwallis statue. A spokesperson has said nominations for that committee are expected to come before council in the coming weeks.