A vigorous debate on whether to examine the naming of public assets after Edward Cornwallis ended Tuesday night with HRM Regional Council boldly deciding to maintain the status quo.
At hand was a request from Halifax South Downtown councillor Waye Mason for a staff report on a public engagement process to advise council on the use of Cornwallis’ name on public assets.
Mason admitted it was a largely noncommittal ask, but a conversation he felt HRM needed to have.
“I want to emphasize that I don’t think this will be an easy conversation,” Mason said. “I think it’ll be very, very hard.”
Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax and first governor of Nova Scotia, has in recent years been spoken of more for the 1749 bounty he placed on M’ikmaw scalps than his political achievements.
Efforts by First Nations elders like Daniel Paul and others have caused some buildings—such as Cornwallis Place (now Summit Place) and Cornwallis Junior High (now Halifax Central Junior High)— to change their names. But the moniker remains attached to numerous public assets—most notably Cornwallis Street and Cornwallis Park in the south end, where a statue of the British military officer still stands.
Numerous groups, including the Mi’kmaw Friendship Centre and the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, have asked council to reexamine the use of Cornwallis’ name.
Those concerns were dismissed on Tuesday, as councillors deferred to the many angry emails they had received by residents who wanted the name and statue to remain.
“You cannot change what happened. It was war, like it or not,” said Spryfield-Sambro Loop-Prospect Road councillor Stephen Adams. “We can’t judge what they did based on today’s standards.”
Other councillors were likewise closed off to the conversation.
“I can’t rationalize this [motion] to the community,” Timberlea-Beechville-Clayton Park-Wedgewood councillor Reg Rankin said, between laments about his Scottish ancestors who he says were also victims of Cornwallis.
“I can’t in good conscious do this.”
“I personally believe Cornwallis, he might not have been a perfect figure in history—the only one that was, we crucified him,” said Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore councillor David Hendsbee. “I probably offended someone just saying that.”
Tuesday’s discussion comes five months after HRM passed a statement of reconciliation with First Nations peoples, and two weeks after new poet laureate Rebecca Thomas performed a poem in front of council on the importance of understanding Indigenous perspectives.
Halifax Peninsula North councillor Jennifer Watts—who called that statement of reconciliation one of the most important moments of her political career—implored her fellow councillors on Tuesday to look at “the truth of our history, and all its fullness.”
“I don’t believe this is a council that shies from difficult conversations,” said Watts. “That’s why we’re elected…”
Mason’s motion was ultimately defeated eight votes to seven. Councillors David Hendsbee, Lorelei Nicoll, Gloria McCluskey, Linda Mosher, Stephen Adams, Russell Walker, Matt Whitman and Reg Rankin voted against. Not present were councillors Steve Craig and Bill Karsten.
Mason called the result disappointing, but said that another discussion on the topic is “inevitable” given the similar conversations happening elsewhere in the country. He also took issue with an all-white council deciding the concerns of its Indigenous residents weren’t valid.
“We are the government of all the people who live here—doesn’t matter about your skin colour, doesn’t matter whether you’re a settler or First Nations—and I don’t think we did a very good job of representing that today.”