Halifax council will embark on the delicate task of choosing the people who will rethink how the city honours its founder, a difficult process that will attempt to disentangle Edward Cornwallis’s actions from his historical context.
Amid mounting calls to topple the city’s Cornwallis statue and strike his name from municipal land, a municipal staff report warns that the expert panel could lose credibility if its members appear to have too strong a bias or insufficient credibility.
“There is a risk that some community members will question the validity of the panel,” the staff report issued ahead of Tuesday’s regional council meeting said.
The proposed panellists, which the staff report said carefully balances experts and community members with a range of backgrounds, will be discussed by councillors behind closed doors before being publicly announced.
Debate has raged across Nova Scotia as calls to change the names of places and landmarks – such as Cornwallis River in the Annapolis Valley or Cornwallis Street in Halifax – grow louder.
Yet nothing has generated quite the same level of controversy as a statue of Cornwallis in downtown Halifax.
The city briefly covered up the bronze figure this summer as protesters converged on the statue with calls to knock it down.
For some, Halifax’s founder may be the product of a bygone era, but he still played an important role establishing the city and serving as governor of Nova Scotia.
He still deserves to be commemorated, they argue, and removing the statue or changing the name of streets and parks is akin to “rewriting history.”
But to others, Cornwallis is a symbol of colonial oppression, a savage man who issued a scalping proclamation against Mi’kmaq people and unleashed death and destruction on Indigenous inhabitants.
His barbaric extermination campaign should be in history books, they say, not celebrated with a heroic monument in a city park.
“The question of the commemoration of Edward Cornwallis … is tied to deep, intractable questions of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations and history,” the municipal staff report said. “The panel cannot reasonably be expected to resolve such questions but, it is hoped will exercise a process that helps advance the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons in the Halifax region.”
Council had voted in April for the staff report on examining the use of Cornwallis’s name on city property.
Halifax is not alone in its attempt to reconcile opposing, and often heated, views on how to commemorate disgraced historical leaders.
South of the border, several cities are grappling with ways to remove or diminish the prominence of Confederate monuments.
Some monuments have been removed in the dead of night to avoid conflict. Interpretive panels have been added alongside other monuments to provide context, while others have been moved to museums or Confederate cemeteries.
WATCH: Halifax mayor Mike Savage reads declaration from “Removing Cornwallis” protesters
Montreal, meanwhile, is renaming a street named after British general Jeffery Amherst, who wanted to ‘exterminate’ Indigenous people by giving them smallpox-laced blankets, and Ottawa is changing the name of a building due to Sir Hector-Louis Langevin’s association with the residential school system.
These examples “underscore the complexity and challenge of responding to questions of commemoration,” the staff report said.
The expert panel to examine the commemoration of Cornwallis comes two years after council adopted a statement of reconciliation, which committed to ensuring the needs and aspirations of Indigenous people are included in the city.
Once the expert panel is chosen and council endorses the terms of references set out by municipal staff, the special advisory committee will be asked to deliberate first on the commemoration of Cornwallis in the city. The panel will then be asked to investigate the broader question of commemorating Indigenous history.