Let’s acknowledge what must be acknowledged: Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis was a genocidal, callous and cruel human being who paid bounties for the scalps of Mi’kmaq men and children, advocated for the rape and murder of Mi’kmaq women and advised that whole Mi’kmaq villages be raised and burnt.
Last week Halifax city council debated whether or not to remove his name from all public places and take down his statue for these historic crimes. Essentially, erasing the city’s founder from all public mention. The motion was defeated in a close vote 8-7, but the debate has opened a valuable public discussion on how Canadian identity has come to be built up over the centuries, especially the historic relationship between European colonists and First Nations’ peoples.
In some ways, those advocating for the removal of Cornwallis from public record in the city are commendable for their honest reflection on a deeply flawed, perhaps even monstrous, man, someone who has been held up as a hero to the generations until recently. But, in another way, it’s too easy. Erasing the public mention of Cornwallis does not absolve the early city founders of his crimes.
A lone man sputtering off genocidal garbage is considered insane. He only becomes dangerous when he starts accruing followers for whom he speaks and whom later empower him to take action. Cornwallis is an easy target for those seeking a scapegoat. He could not have achieved anything he did alone. He spoke for many in his era and carried out his plans with their outright collusion.
Does Cornwallis deserve to be honoured? No. Does he need to be acknowledged as belonging to all the citizens of Halifax who live on the foundation he built? Absolutely. His name should not be hidden, but the truth about him should be told; not swept under the carpet and forgotten.
It is not only the citizens of Halifax who have been remiss in this respect. There are many among our own province’s founders whose historic sins must also be acknowledged. But this brings us back to the central question of how we formulate our own identity. How do we decide who should be honoured and who shouldn’t? How do we live with the sins of the past, look at them unflinchingly, and still move forward?
We all must acknowledge what must be acknowledged. We must own the history which has brought us to this day. We must never flinch from the hard truths.
But at the same time the past cannot be changed. Blood cannot be unspilled. We cannot punish the living for the crimes of the dead.
What we can do is commit our own lives, the unfolding history of the now, to living in a better way, and so learn from the dark chapters of the past to move toward a brighter day.