Tristan Cleveland: How we can all win the Cornwallis debate
Here are three thoughts on why the statue should be removed, how to handle the discussion, and what could go in its place.
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Halifax is moving forward on having regular, public discussions about what to do about Cornwallis. Let’s turn this emotional issue into the chance to create something valuable, and not just resentment or bad public art.
I’m wading in with three simple thoughts.
Yes, we should really get rid of the statue.
I can’t seem to find anything to justify Cornwallis as a figure worth commemorating. Yes, he happened to be put in charge of a colony Britain had already decided to establish. But he didn’t do a particularly good job running it, complained home about having to live here, and was relieved of the assignment after a few short years.
He was not celebrated at the time. If anything, it was the construction of the statue in 1931 that was an attempt to “rewrite history,” making a hero of a mediocre figure. What is there to memorialize? The right of incompetent aristocrats to be celebrated no matter their record?
While there’s not much to celebrate, there’s plenty to condemn. Not only did he put a bounty on the head of all Mi'kmaq men, women and children, he refused to give the the dignity of a formal declaration of war, since that would position them as, “a free and independent people, whereas they ought to be treated as so many bandit ruffians.”
It is precisely because of history that we should move the statue and change the name of the street.
Let’s do the debate right
Council has voted to create an expert panel to have regular, public discussions on both what to do about Cornwallis and how to better commemorate Mi'kmaq history.
Here’s an opportunity to build insight, and a big risk we’ll just build resentment.
In this debate, it will be all-too easy to shut down anyone as bigots (or “s**t heads”) if they support keeping the statue. We need to resist that urge.
Those who want to move the statue have history and reason on their side, so there is no reason to fear letting those who disagree time to speak. If supporters of the statue feel they can’t express themselves, however, it will only strengthen opposition to further reconciliation in years ahead.
And to those who support keeping the statue, please recognize that the Mi'kmaq have a legitimate concern. This isn’t just some slippery slope. This is a specific historical figure, and we are adult enough to consider anyone our city honours on their merits.
Let’s do this right, so when it comes time to lock Cornwallis away in a museum somewhere, the quality of this process can become part of the exhibit.
And what do we want there instead?
Right now, it seems like we can only build two kinds of statues: political and military figures, or bizarre postmodern thing-a-ma-jiggies.
Replacing this statue is a chance to talk about creating public art people actually like. Why not build a statue so awesome we would go out of our way to show it to people?
I think it makes sense to let the Mi'kmaq take the lead on what specifically goes on that pedestal, but let’s make it something human. Something that surprises a bit, that goes against expectations of public art, but that you don’t need an art degree to connect with. Maybe something fun, whimsical and interactive, or something sombre that stops you in your tracks.
But please not another man staring at the horizon, or another Dalhousie exploding penis sculpture.
Let’s replace Cornwallis Statue with something we actually love. Surely we’re capable of that.