A Halifax social activist says a plaque at a Halifax public park that commemorates a man who died in a fight in Nigeria in 1898 should be removed.
Lt. Henry Edward Clonard Keating, who was born in Truro, N.S., died after abducting several villagers to operate canoes he’d stolen from them for his crew’s passage.
The villagers of Hela refused to provide the requested canoes, so “Keating then ‘collared’ the ‘king’ and ‘took him off'” before taking the canoes and men.
Subsequently, the villagers attacked his group, killing him.
As retribution, a force was sent by the British and 50 villagers were killed. Later, the village and others nearby were razed, killing another 50 villagers.
In 1899, a tree in the memory of Keating was planted in the Halifax Public Gardens by teachers and students of Morris Street School.
A plaque, which doesn’t detail the events surrounding his death, currently stands in front of a London plane tree near the park’s southwestern entrance.
“That plaque represents the neocolonialism of the day. It represents white supremacy,” said Lynn Jones on Wednesday.
“I think that it should be removed but not just for the sake of removal. I think it should be removed because people understand the atrocities of what has taken place.”
Learning about the plaque’s existence makes her wonder about the other people with questionable histories commemorated in the municipality, she said.
Afua Cooper, the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, said in a phone interview from Toronto that, given the era, she was not surprised to learn about Keating’s actions and his posthumous commemoration.
But societies have evolved, and “the plaque should be removed because the wording is sanitized,” she added.
If people want to remember him in this fashion, another plaque should be produced that presents “a more rounded story.”
Cooper said that problematic commemorations also extend to street names.
Stairs Street in the north end of the peninsula was named after Halifax’s William Grant Stairs, according to a spokesperson for the municipal government.
Cooper said the street should be renamed because, according to Yves Engler, the soldier committed atrocities, including mutilating bodies, cannibalism and engaging in sex slavery, against people in the Congo.
“I think they’re distractions right now. Nobody has ever come to me about those issues before. This issue of Cornwallis has been around for a long time. It’s not an issue that’s going to go away, it has to be resolved one way or the other. If there are other cases that people can look at and research it and say that, ‘You know, we’re commemorating a person who we shouldn’t,’ then we’ll look at it. But, to me, that’s a bit of a distraction,” said Halifax Mayor Mike Savage.
He added that his current focus is the use of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis’ name on municipal assets.
WATCH: Cornwallis dispute hits Halifax council again
District 9 Coun. Shawn Cleary brought forward this year’s motion on the matter.
“One of the really great things in all of this is, by seeing these, and then going and researching them, we’re re-learning or we’re, in a lot of cases, just simply learning about our history and how we celebrate that, and whether or not it should be celebrated, whether it should be honoured,” he said.
Cleary said the plaque doesn’t compare at the moment to the magnitude of issues stemming from the statue, but it is worth exploring.
The issues surrounding how historical figures are publicly commemorated is being faced by other North American communities.
Judith Cabrita, chair of the Friends of the Public Gardens, declined an interview request about the plaque after she said she spoke to the executive members of the group about the matter.
She noted during a phone conversation that the plaque installation “happened a long time ago.”
Cooper said that the key to solving these kinds issues is the willingness to have open conversations about them.