By Scott Taylor
There has been a lot of controversy recently in Halifax over the statue of Edward Cornwallis, that city’s founder.
On Canada Day, a crowd of Mi’kmaq and their supporters gathered at the base of the statue to decry Cornwallis as a perpetrator of genocide against Indigenous Peoples. In their opinion, Cornwallis symbolizes a ruthless chapter in Canada’s colonization.
Challenging the First Nations demonstrators was a group of five Proud Boys waving the alt-rights adopted symbol of Canada’s old Red Ensign national flag. Embarrassingly, the gaggle of Proud Boys turned out to be members of the Canadian Armed Forces. All five were immediately suspended with pay, and Rear-Admiral John Newton hastily offered a full apology for their actions.
Following up on this incident, on July 15 another crowd gathered in Cornwallis Park with the stated objective of tearing down this alleged tribute to genocide. But cooler heads prevailed and, in the end, the compromise solution was to cover the image of Lord Cornwallis with a tarp. Halifax Mayor Mike Savage was on hand at this second demonstration and he acknowledged that removal of this polemic statue may yet be the final solution.
One could argue that, on the plus side, at least it has generated interest in what was heretofore just another bronze image of a British historical figure in a Canadian public space.
Edward Cornwallis was born into nobility in 1713, and at the age of 18 he purchased a commission in the British Army. His one claim to fame during the War of the Austrian Succession came at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, when he stepped up to take command of his battalion. The public mocked him for his subsequent retreat with the appalling loss of 8 officers and 385 of his men.
Cornwallis also fought at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, wherein the English army shattered the Jacobite Highland clans. While he played only a bit part in the battle, in the aftermath of the Scots’ defeat, Cornwallis led a punitive force into the Highlands.
It was here that Cornwallis committed his first atrocities. His orders were to bring back no prisoners, and his elite unit used mass murder and rape to pacify the rebellious Highlanders into submission.
Pleased with his actions, British parliament dispatched Lord Cornwallis to North America in 1749 for the purpose of establishing a colony that could compete with the French foothold of Louisbourg on Cape Breton. The site that Cornwallis chose was Halifax, perfect for its deep harbour and easily defended approaches.
One problem with this location was that it violated a former treaty with the Wabanaki Confederacy of First Nations, which included the Mi’kmaq tribes. The Wabanaki allied themselves with France, and the Acadians and Mi’kmaq did kill British settlers. In retribution, Cornwallis ordered his elite Rangers to hunt down the Mi’kmaq and he made the now-infamous offer to pay a bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps.
This conflict became known as Father Le Loutre’s War and it should be noted that the French also paid the Mi’kmaq for English scalps. It also should be pointed out that Cornwallis left Halifax long before those clashes and massacres were concluded, but nobody has yet to decry his successor, Peregrine Hopson, as a symbol of colonial genocide. But then again there are no statues of him.
Personally, I believe the statue of Cornwallis should remain in place so that it can be used as an educational tool for taking a closer look at the past myths that have shaped our nation’s history. Not only did Lord Cornwallis and other individuals like him commit heinous war crimes against, in his case, the Scots and the Mi’kmaq, but we were so immune to any empathy for his victims, that we actually glorified his ‘accomplishments’ with a statue and street names.
This is the lesson that needs to be taught.