The story of Edward Cornwallis in Nova Scotia is told two ways: The tale of a brave leader and his entourage of soldiers and settlers trying to survive in a new world, or the commander of a bloody and barbaric extermination campaign against Mi’kmaq inhabitants.
On Tuesday, Halifax council will debate a motion that could change how the city remembers its controversial founder.
Rookie councillor Shawn Cleary has proposed asking staff to come up with terms of reference and a potential expert panel to weigh in on the commemoration of Cornwallis in the city. The expert panel would also examine ways to commemorate indigenous history in the region.
A similar proposal, narrowly defeated 8-7, polarized council last year.
Whether Colonel Edward Cornwallis was a courageous colonial figure or a genocidal imperialist depends largely on who is being asked.
“In the face of great odds, he persevered through the winter and against local hostilities,” said John Boileau, chairman of the Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society. “With Cornwallis as leader, Halifax was founded.”
Other accounts describe a brutal colonial campaign against the local inhabitants.
“The British raided the land and killed the Mi’kmaq – men, women and children,” said Daniel Paul, a Mi’kmaq elder and historian. “It was genocide.”
The British military officer had played a forceful role in the Jacobite rising of 1745, violently suppressing the Scottish rebellion.
When the British government needed a leader to stomp out indigenous resistance in Nova Scotia, it turned to Cornwallis.
With a group of settlers and military personnel, the neophyte governor arrived in Chebucto Harbour in June 1749.
The Mi’kmaq greeted his entourage with hospitality. One settler noted the “friendly Indians” brought them lobsters and other fish.
But peace was short-lived. Cornwallis wasted no time in his attempts to assert British control over the region and the new town he christened Halifax.
After a treaty between the British and Maliseet chiefs, the Mi’kmaq were left as the sole opposition to the occupation.
At a meeting with Mi’kmaq chiefs in September, the British made it clear they expected the indigenous population to submit to colonial domination.
In response, the Mi’kmaq declared war against the British, attacking military, shipping and trade targets.
On October 2, 1749, Cornwallis and his military council approved an infamous scalping proclamation to “take or destroy the savages.”
The decree promises a reward of “ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken, or killed, to be paid upon producing such savage taken or his scalp.”
There has been debate about whether the bounty was intended to apply to every man, woman and child, or only men who rebelled against the British.
Boileau, chairman of the military preservation society, argues that the proclamation only targeted men because it refers to “his” scalp, although male pronouns have traditionally been used as gender-neutral.
Boileau says if women and children had been targeted, the proclamation would have included a different price on their scalps.
“It was one set fee,” he said. “If women and children had been targeted, it would have been at a different, lower rate.”
Boileau added: “To say Cornwallis put a bounty on the scalp of every man, woman and child is absolutely incorrect … it’s alternate facts.”
But Saint Mary’s University history professor John Reid disagrees. He said the scalp and prisoner proclamation wasn’t confined to warriors.
“There was no restriction,” he said. “It just says any ‘savage.”‘
After three years as governor, Cornwallis resigned. It wasn’t until 1899, nearly a hundred years later, that the idea of Cornwallis as the founder of Halifax surfaced, Reid said.
“Cornwallis really was a pretty minor historical figure,” he said, noting that Cornwallis was “reinvented” through the late 19th century and early 20th century idea of imperialism.
“The essence of it to me is not whether Cornwallis was a nice or nasty figure,” he said. “He was not a successful governor. Cornwallis really was forgotten until his reinvention as a vehicle for the reassertion of this kind of imperial identity.”
Much of the debate has centred around the statue of the governor in Cornwallis Park, near Halifax’s train station.
Opponents of changing the name of the park or removing the statue say it’s an attempt to “rewrite history.”
Boileau suggested adding a statue of a Mi’kmaq figure and an Acadian to Cornwallis Park would represent all the “founding people of Nova Scotia.”
“You don’t have to destroy one history to tell another,” he said. “This does not have to be a zero-sum game.”
Paul said no one is proposing changing history or taking Cornwallis out of history books. But he said it’s time to stop honouring Cornwallis in public places.
“If Cornwallis had issued a proclamation for the scalps of Acadians, do you suppose there would be a park and statue to honour him?” Paul asked. “Of course there wouldn’t. To me it’s a symbol of white supremacy at its worst.”
Reid said the statue belongs in a museum.
“It’s a piece of public art, by a significant sculptor,” he said. “I’m not saying melt it down. In a museum it can provoke discussion with interpretive panels to present different viewpoints.”
He said a statue on a pedestal in a park implies celebration.
“Settler colonialism was intensively destructive to indigenous people, leading to loss of life and suffering on a scale we can barely comprehend,” Reid said. “That shouldn’t be cause for celebration.”