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Federal justice minister says removing Cornwallis statue is local issue

Click to play video: 'N.S. Mi’kmaq chiefs meet with political leaders in annual summit' N.S. Mi’kmaq chiefs meet with political leaders in annual summit
Watch: Leaders in the Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq community are meeting with politicians today for the second annual Chiefs Summit. Dave Squires reports on what's on the agenda – Aug 10, 2017

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said Thursday she defers to the views of local Mi’kmaq leaders on whether a statue of Halifax’s controversial founder should be moved from a city park.

The Liberal cabinet minister was in Wolfville, N.S., Thursday to attend a meeting with Nova Scotia chiefs and MPs to discuss increased self government for Mi’kmaq communities in the province.

Last month protesters pledged to remove a bronze monument to Edward Cornwallis in a Halifax park, but instead the city temporarily covered it in a tarp.

READ MORE: Mi’kmaq leaders urge calm as protest to remove Halifax’s Cornwallis statue goes ahead

Cornwallis, as governor of Nova Scotia, founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists.

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Some members of the Mi’kmaq community have called for the removal of tributes to Cornwallis, calling his actions a form of genocide.

Wilson-Raybould, who is Aboriginal, says the regional leadership of the Assembly of First Nations and “the rest of the community and elders” will determine what actions to take to enhance reconciliation between First Nations and non-Aboriginal residents in Nova Scotia.

“I think under the leadership of regional chief (Morley) Googoo and the rest of the community and elders they will determine what best to happen with the Cornwallis statue in terms of reconciliation,” she said before entering the meeting.

Googoo told reporters it’s not something that he intended to discuss at the gathering.

He said he understands the difficulties faced by Halifax Mayor Michael Savage, as the local politician proceeds through a process of council meetings and hearings to determine the fate of the monument.

“I respect the mayor’s challenges,” said the chief. “He has to go through committees, make recommendations. The Cornwallis statue, Cornwallis Street, all of these things have to be renamed, you can’t just take the statues down and nothing is there.”

He said there are diverse views among the Mi’kmaq on how the issue should be handled, but there is consensus that figures like Cornwallis should no longer honoured.

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“If Mi’kmaq people are offended by it … put it (the statue) somewhere where the story can be told, but don’t honour and worship it in a park like this.”

READ MORE: Halifax ‘legacy rooms’ to offer step toward reconciliation

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was also at the meeting, which he said was focused on making progress towards shifting away from the Indian Act and towards self government.

Bellegarde said issues like the statue are part of a wider national trend, as Indigenous peoples ask other Canadians to re-examine their history.

“I think there’s a movement across Canada for reconciliation and there’s a big movement to start telling history from First Nations perspectives,” he said.

He noted the federal government’s announcement in June that it is renaming the Langevin building in Ottawa to the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said having his office in a building named for Sir Hector-Louis Langevin – a figure associated with the residential school system – clashed with the government’s vision.

“If you want to move down that road and path called reconciliation, it’s very important that you look at all these things from a First Nations perspective and support those changes that will bring about that reconciliation,” said Bellegarde.

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“It’s all part of the process. … I think that movement should be embraced.”

READ MORE: Saskatoon ahead of the curve with reconciliation

Former prime minister Paul Martin, in Halifax Thursday to receive an award, also said he would leave the Cornwallis issue to local leaders.

“I think we have to be truthful about our history. There were some terrible things done to Indigenous Canadians, and if we’re going to have reconciliation, that has be recognized,” he said. “Reconciliation, I believe, means recognizing the errors of the past.”

With files from Adina Bresge in Halifax

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