Poet laureate heartened by council’s Cornwallis vote

“It’s overwhelming,” says Rebecca Thomas, about reconciliation motion she directly inspired.

HRM poet laureate Rebecca Thomas. - ALEX LANDINE
Alex Landine
HRM poet laureate Rebecca Thomas.

While Halifax Regional Council was debating the legacy of Edward Cornwallis on Tuesday afternoon, Rebecca Thomas was following along from the other side of the country.

The municipality’s poet laureate is in Vancouver this week, competing in the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam. So she wasn’t able to attend Tuesday’s council meeting, where it was approved 15-1 that a panel of experts should review how controversial founder Edward Cornwallis is commemorated on municipal assets.

Thomas says she was riding the bus at the time, reading about the debate on Twitter.

“I was just kind of watching it and retweeting it and getting very excited,” she says over the phone.

There’s been a strong push in recent years to publicly acknowledge Cornwallis’ 1749 scalping proclamation, his treatment of the Mi’kmaq and the symbolic oppression represented by the statue, south-end park and north-end street still named in his honour.

Cornwallis' legacy is one of colonialism. Having an open discussion about that is an important step towards reconciliation, says the mayor.

“To me, this is less about Cornwallis than it is about removing an impediment to progress with our First Nations partners,” Mike Savage said on Tuesday. “This is stopping us from having a dialogue and a real relationship with a group of people with whom we need to.”

Thomas agrees. It’s not about the statue. It’s about what HRM committed itself to in 2015.

“You can take down the statue, but if reconciliation isn’t ongoing and moving forward, well you just took down a hunk of metal,” she says. “It’s really important to recognize this is just one part of a larger issue.”

Councillor Shawn Cleary’s motion—which also asks staff to include recommendations on how to better acknowledge the region’s Indigenous history—was directly inspired by Thomas’s performance of her poem, “Not Perfect,” at City Hall two weeks prior.

Thomas’ words were cited several times on Tuesday as reasons why councillors supported this attempt at examining our shared past. The poet laureate says that’s “definitely an honour,” but she’s quick to share the credit with the many others advocates who've spread awareness of the issue, including author and Mi’kmaw elder Daniel Paul.

“He’s been doing this since I was in high school,” Thomas says. “So much of my information and passion comes from people who’ve been working on this issue long before me.”

It will be a few months before staff return with a report on the panel of experts, and even longer before that assembled panel returns with advice on Cornwallis’ legacy.

In the interim, Thomas is hoping the group consults with communities outside the municipality’s current borders.

“We were a migratory people,” she says. “So to honour the spirit of traditional Mi’kmaw people to kind of consult them and look outside the boundaries of HRM would be really significant. It would show really great perspective in reconciliation and what that means.”

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