Unreserved

Mi'kmaq poet Rebecca Thomas calls out Halifax founder's violent history

In Halifax, everything from streets to rivers are named after the city's founder, Edward Cornwallis. A prominent statue of him stands right in the heart of the city. But a somewhat less flattering portrait of Cornwallis is starting to emerge, one that reveals a violent history against Nova Scotia’s Mi'kmaq people.

'We don't like the fact you celebrate a man who made us into a form of currency'

Rebecca Thomas, the first Mi'kmaq poet laureate of Halifax, says city founder Edward Cornwallis turned her people into a type of currency by placing a bounty on them. (Rebecca Thomas/Facebook)

Sometimes, the past has a way of catching up to us.

Take, for instance, Edward Cornwallis, who founded Halifax in 1749. Everything from streets to rivers are named after him, and a prominent statue of him stands right in the heart of the city.

But a somewhat less flattering portrait of Cornwallis is starting to emerge, one that reveals a 

violent history against Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq people.

"He ended up issuing a scalping proclamation," said Rebecca Thomas, the first Mi'kmaq poet laureate of Halifax. "There were actually militia groups in Halifax that would go out and hunt Mi'kmaq people."

She said the scalping bounty was retaliation against Mi'kmaq defending their territory from Cornwallis' attempts to go beyond the agreed-upon settlement area.

Change the name

In 2001, Mi'kmaq elder Dan Paul successfully lobbied to have Cornwallis Junior High School renamed Halifax Central Junior High School. 

Thomas said Halifax council narrowly defeated a motion to open up discussion around city sites named after the city's controversial founder. Coun. Waye Mason brought forward a motion to consult the public about municipal "commemorations" of Nova Scotia's first governor, including a park and a street bearing the Cornwallis name.

Edward Cornwallis's statue was erected in the 1930s. (CBC)
"I think what we'll find out if this goes forward, this expert panel is going to discover that Edward Cornwallis wasn't perfect. I already know that," said Coun. Matt Whitman, the deputy mayor, who voted against the motion. "We already know this guy's done stuff. So has every other street name and person in Halifax."

Council voted 8-7 to defeat the motion.

Privilege versus poetry

Thomas said viewing a discussion of Cornwallis' legacy as a kind of punishment reeked of privilege.

"That is extraordinary language to use when we as human beings said, 'Hey, we don't like the fact you celebrate a man who made us into a form of currency.' "

She said the motion was to have a conversation, not to tear down the statue or erase him from Halifax history.

"There's a tremendous benefit to acknowledging historical pasts and failures, but there is a huge difference between remembering somebody and honouring somebody. We don't honour people who commit horrible, horrible atrocities," she said.


Rebecca Thomas was inspired by the controversy to write a poem called Not Perfect. Click the link above to hear her perform it.  

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