Views / Halifax

Tristan Cleveland: Cornwallis took big step off pedestal, but next steps will be harder

The second phase of how to handle Cornwallis tributes should involve both sides of debate, or resentment could develop that itself becomes a barrier to reconciliation.

The statue of Edward Cornwallis is removed from its pedestal in South End Halifax on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.

Zane Woodford/Metro

The statue of Edward Cornwallis is removed from its pedestal in South End Halifax on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018.

“We’re not here to erase history,” Suzanne Patlestold the crowd Sunday at the celebration for the removal of the statue of Cornwallis. “We’re here to erase hatred.”

On erasing history, I couldn’t agree more. On erasing hatred, I hope so, but I have concerns.   

The controversy has given people more reason to learn about our past than the statue ever did in 87 years of standing there.

“This whole thing has been one big educational opportunity,” Rebecca Moore, a Mi’kmaq advocate said Sunday at a celebration for the statue’s removal.

“One thing I learned is how many Nova Scotians are unaware of the true foundation of their settlement here, the peace and settlement treaties. They seem to think that we’re a conquered people, that they own this place.”

Instead, she explained, “Both opponents were so strong that we had to come to an agreement of peace and friendship. And we need to remember that.”

Moore told me she would like to see the statue replaced with a monument to the signing of the treaties as the starting point of settlement. The idea is impressive. Recognizing those treaties as the key moment in the origin story of Nova Scotia would help shape our identity in terms of a shared history.

I’ve heard it said that we settlers benefited more from the treaties than the Mi’kmaq, so the least we can do is remember we signed them. Done well, that pedestal could mark a new phase in how we celebrate our own past.

As for erasing hatred, the result is more complex. A symbol of racism to the Mi’kmaq is gone, so that is progress. And it removed an impediment to trust and discussions with the Mi’kmaq, and that is progress.

But, there is the risk that the people who wanted to keep the statue will feel they had no opportunity to have their views heard or recognized. A critical challenge now is to offer them a meaningful role in deciding what happens next to that statue and its pedestal, or they may develop resentment that could itself become a barrier to future reconciliation.

As Coun. Lorelei Nicoll noted in debate, "We've heard from many people, many of whom I respect their opinion, but were all over the place." The process should recognize that there are good people who wanted that statue to stay, and find some meaningful way to address the things they value, if progress is to be sustainable.

When it comes to issues of race and history, it can be all-too easy to vilify people on the other side of an issue. Even in my efforts to understand my own views in the last week, I felt vilified at times by my friends. That is not how we invite people in to feel supportive of a movement.

One of the high points of this controversy has been witnessing Coun. Bill Karsten change his mind on it. “I’m not embarrassed in the least to say where I am now is not where I was a month or two ago,” he said at Council.

“If this act makes a difference in the future, through our actions, not just words, makes a difference in that relationship… Then I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Whoever changed his mind, we need to apply those lessons more broadly. I want to see the Cornwallis issue makes Halifax better. To achieve that, the next steps will, somehow, need to give all sides substantive voice, while still recognizing Mi’kmaq people’s powerful claims to reconciliation.

Note to readers: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Coun. Lorelei Nicoll during the debate on Cornwallis. The proper quote is now worded correctly in the story. Metro apologizes for the error.

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