Halifax Regional Council voted Tuesday to create an expert panel to examine and make recommendations on the issue of commemorating Edward Cornwallis on municipal properties that bear his name.
The motion, which was brought forward by District 9 Councillor Shawn Cleary, will also ask the expert panel to advise council on how to commemorate Indigenous history within Halifax Regional Municipality.
“This is a positive thing that we are doing. We are building a new relationship with the Indigenous community here in Canada and I think in Halifax taking that step is wonderful,” Coun. Cleary said following the vote.
Edward Cornwallis was a British military officer who founded Halifax in 1749. While he was based in Halifax, he issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaw men, women and children.
Indigenous people living in Halifax have raised concerns about the city commemorating Edward Cornwallis. A street and a park in the city bears the controversial leader’s name. A statue of Cornwallis is also located within Cornwallis Park in downtown Halifax.
Cleary said he brought the motion to council Tuesday after Halifax’s current poet laureate read her poem about her feelings on Cornwallis during the last council meeting on April 11. The District 9 councillor said Rebecca Thomas’ poem “moved” him.
“I remember being so outraged and so crestfallen that I needed to do something so to hear those words is validating,” Thomas said during a phone interview when reached in Vancouver Tuesday.
“I hope it’s a first positive step. I am optimistic,” the Mi’kmaw poet added.
Council voted 15-1 in favour of the motion. The only councillor to vote against the motion was District 11 Councillor Stephen Adams.
Cleary explained the next step is to find experts to sit on the panel, including experts in Indigenous history.
“I would like to see experts broaden to not just be experts in history but experts in humanity,” Cleary said.
However, Indigenous studies professor Patti Doyle-Bedwell questions whether an expert panel is really needed to examine the issue of commemorating Cornwallis throughout the city.
“I think there are people that have been talking and writing about this for a long time,” the Dalhousie University professor said in reaction to the motion Tuesday.
“I don’t know why they don’t have enough information to make a clear decision of Cornwallis’s role in Nova Scotia,” she said.
“If that’s the only way they (council) can do that then I will support it,” Doyle-Bedwell said.
“I just hope that the expert panel involves Dan Paul (Mi’kmaw historian and activist) because you have to have to have people there that support he whole story, not just half of the story,” she added.
Cornwallis is a “catalyst” – Deputy Mayor Steve Craig
Deputy Mayor Steve Craig called Cornwallis a “catalyst” for change during the hour-long debate in council.
“He is causing things to happen quickly because we are talking about him,” Craig said. “We’re using that to discuss the other issue of equality, equity, reconciliation and those types of things,” he said.
District 8 Councillor Lindell Smith added his own personal perspective to the debate. He noted his home community of North Preston has had long ties to the Mi’kmaq and that his own father has Mi’kmaw heritage.
“This conversation here is not about, it’s slightly about removing Edward Cornwallis, but what we are really saying (is) we need to recognize the conversation and we need to empathize with people that are feeling hurt and see where that goes,” Coun. Smith said.
“And if we can’t do that, then I might as well just leave the council chamber and not come back,” he said.
Mayor Mike Savage moved to the floor to add his comments to the debate.
“For 13 or 14-thousand years that we know of, the Mi’kmaw people have been here. I think we need to recognize that and try to recognize that with an open mind that there are things that matter to people,” Mayor Savage said.
“I am completely convinced that this is the right thing to do entirely in keeping with the values, the principles that we have adopted as a council, including diversity and inclusion which most of us wear on our lapel,” he added.
The discussion around the commemoration of Edward Cornwallis throughout Halifax was brought up in 2016 when District 7 Councillor Waye Mason brought it to Halifax Regional Council. At that time, the motion was defeated with an 8-7 vote.
Meanwhile, some changes have already been made to address the issue of the Cornwallis name on buildings.
Cornwallis Junior High changed its name to Halifax Central Junior High School in 2012. Earlier this year, the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church announced it would also change its name.