Halifax’s public figures are not as diverse as its citizens, especially when it comes to who is cast in bronze and put upon a pedestal. There's The Emigrant statue that was erected at the waterfront in 2013, and the 2017 statue The Volunteers recognizes three women who volunteered in the Second World War. But our most prominent statues—Edward Cornwallis, Winston Churchill, Robbie Burns, and Samuel Cunard—are all white men.
Cornwallis’ nine-foot bronze figure, first erected in 1931, was taken down in January 2018. But recent protests in solidarity with Black lives matter around the world have toppled statues including Edward Colston, Christopher Colombus, and Winston Churchill.
"Statues should not create further harmful memories, should not traumatize those whose lives were directly impacted by the system that they represented,” says Rachel Zellars, Assistant Professor at Saint Mary’s University’s department of social justice and community studies.
Zellars says statues like Cornwallis and Churchill are meant to glorify and highlight their subjects, and rarely include plaques explaining the less glamorous things they did.
“That statue conveys the message to me that the history of slavery was actually not such a bad thing. That the person who’s being represented has a rightful place in our public space," says Zellars.
Zellars tells The Coast that having these figures who were slave-owners and colonialists in public spaces is telling a one-sided history. “The problem with statues of problematic historical figures is that they allow a story to be told again and again by those in power,” she says. “And never ever by those who were disadvantaged, lived through violence and slaughtered by that person in power. They allow a historical narrative to persist over time.”
Churchill definitely falls into the colonialist category although as recently as fall 2019 a Halifax Heritage Committee report said the 10-foot statue of the British Prime Minister added to the value of the old library lot, saying he was “one of the most important leaders in British and world history.” In 1937 Churchill told the Palestine Royal Commission that no wrongs had been done to Indigenous people in the US or Australia. "A stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place," he said.
For people of colour who walk through these public spaces, having these statues in their faces is an affront to their family’s history. Zellars says art historians have long suggested putting these statues in museums–along with signage detailing the horrors they committed.
“Statues are never for the purpose of reckoning with a problematic part of history. Statues are for illuminating or shining a light on a historical truth that’s already been presumed,” she says.
Zellars says that putting these statues in museums can allow people to deliberately learn about them when they’re ready to, not when they’re in public. “Statues are not something that we can make the choice whether to engage with. We pass them on the way to the library or the post office. They take up common spaces.”
Instead, what takes up our public space should be representative of the society we live in. Zellars thinks erecting more diverse statues could have a real influence on historical education.
“It would mean that children would get to encounter, from a very young age, people who look like them, who look like their family,” she says. “And get to learn about an entirely different set of human beings that we refer to as the founders, the heroes, the makers of Nova Scotia.”
But statues aren’t cheap, and building a diverse lineup of them could be pricey. To erect The Volunteers, the Halifax Women’s History Society fundraised over $600,000. The Cornwallis statue cost $20,000 (mostly paid for by CN Rail) in 1931, the equivalent of almost $350,000 today.
Although Zellars says that chunk of money could go pretty far towards improving the education system elsewhere, building more diverse statues could also lead to a deeper, subconscious change.
“As long as we are a society that deems statues to be important markers within our commons, within our city life, the answer of course is yes, we should be replacing and putting up different kinds of statues that tell very different stories for our children and the people that encounter them,” she says.
And, Zellars says Halifax’s stance on statues over the coming months and years could be indicative of how progressive we are as a city.
“Statues tell everything about a society’s willingness to see or hear different stories, to hear more truthful narratives,” she says. “And to reckon with the harm that a particular group of people have done upon another group of people.”
On that note, here are some statues we'd like to see take over Cornwallis and Churchill's pedestals:
Although Desmond is most famous for taking a stance against segregation at a New Glasgow theatre in 1946, she also owned the city’s first Black beauty school: Desmond School of Beauty Culture. Desmond’s school saw up to 15 women graduate each year, most who'd been denied admission to whites-only training schools. Viola also owned a combined barbershop and salon with her husband Jack on Gottingen Street.
After losing her court case against the theatre, Desmond moved to Montreal and then New York City, where she died at age 50 in 1965. It wasn’t until 2010 that Desmond was posthumously pardoned, and since then, Canada has attempted to right its wrongs by naming a ferry after her and putting her face on the $10 bill.
Although little is known about him (including his exact date of death), da Costa was the first recorded Black person in Nova Scotia in 1608. He spoke several languages including Dutch, English, French, Portuguese and Mi’kmaq, and worked as a translator for Pierre DuGua of France when he arrived in Port Royal, NS, helping him trade with the Mi’kmaq. A Canada Post stamp depicting da Costa was released for Black History Month in 2017.
Living in the 1500s, not much is known about Membertou, but he was a Mi’kmaq Grand Chief who lived for over 100 years. During his lifetime he met both Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain and acted as political and spiritual leader for the Mi’kmaq living near Port Royal at the time. In 1610, Membertou became the first native leader to be baptized by the French, as a sign of alliance. He died of dysentery in 1611 and is believed to have been 104. In 2007, Canada Post created a stamp bearing his image.
Preston escaped slavery in Virginia to come to Nova Scotia in 1816 in search of his mother, who had fled four years earlier during the War of 1812. He found her alive and well in Preston, and was so happy he took the community’s name as his own (although many believe the communities of North and East Preston were named after him, the opposite is true). A religious leader, Preston went on to found several Black baptist churches including the Cornwallis St. Baptist Church, which today exists as New Horizons Baptist Church.
Bernard was the chief complainant of the class action lawsuit that saw the dark history behind residential schools in Canada come to light. In 1945, at nine years old, Bernard was sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, where she spent five years. After that, the Mi’kmaw woman had her status revoked for marrying a non-Indigenous man. After more than 10 years of fighting for 79,000 residential school survivors, the Canadian government settled the lawsuit in 2005 for over $5 million, making it the largest class-action lawsuit in Canada’s history. Bernard was tragically murdered in 2007 and was posthumously awarded the Order of Nova Scotia the following year.
Fortune came to Nova Scotia as a child in 1783, along with 3,000 other Black loyalists from New York City. She's believed to have had multiple marriages and at least three children. In 1825, Fortune began a business carting luggage from the docks to nearby homes and hotels. Although neither Black people nor women were allowed to work at the time, Fortune became trusted among travellers, and by the 1840s she was using horse-drawn wagons for transport. As a constant presence on the dock who imposed curfews and kept the young men in check, Fortune is often called the first female police officer in Canada.
7 Black people who died in the Halifax Explosion According to the Nova Scotia Archives, four residents of Africville, along with an Indigenous woman who was there at the time, died during the Halifax Explosion in 1917, including 8-year-old Aldora Andrews, the youngest of Charles and Laura Andrews’ four children. A CBC article says Aldora’s death certificate was never issued, and many Black families who lost their homes and livelihoods in the explosion were denied financial assistance. Halifax’s previous poet laureate, Afua Cooper, wrote a poem about the Black lives affected by the Explosion, which she read on the 102nd anniversary of the event this past December.
Ruddick was an African Nova Scotian coal miner who survived the Springhill Mine Explosion of 1958. He was named “Canada’s citizen of the year” and the six men he was trapped with say Ruddick led them in song and kept their spirits up for the nine days they spent underground.
After their rescue, the miners were offered a free vacation to Georgia—where Jim Crow laws still reigned. Ruddick was forced to be segregated from the others on the trip. He died in 1988, and his story was turned into a Heritage Minute in 1993.
Lonecloud (July 4, 1854 – April 16, 1930) was an Indigenous ethnographer and medicine man who wrote the first Mi’kmaq memoir, titled Tracking Dr Lonecloud: Showman to Legend Keeper. He spent much of the 1880s in the United States, travelling as part of “medicine shows” and creating medicines from herbal remedies before traditional doctors existed. He also lived in Tufts Cove during the Halifax Explosion. He lost his two daughters and an eye during the event. His memoir, reconstructed and annotated by Ruth Whitehead, was published in 2010.
10 Three Black Nova Scotians served in the American Civil War in the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The three men—Hammel Gilyer, Samuel Hazzard and Thomas Page—were all sailors before the war. They served at battles like Fort Wagner and the Battle of Grimball’s Landing. Despite this, the Black soldiers only received $7 a month, $6 less than their white counterparts did at the time.
Best was the African Nova Scotian journalist who originally broke Viola Desmond’s story in 1946. Best had also faced her own moment of racism at the same theatre in 1943, where she and her son were arrested for breaking the same segregation rules Desmond would three years later. Best was founder of The Clarion, the first Black-owned and published paper in Nova Scotia. She was also a columnist for the Pictou Advocate and ran a radio show called The Quiet Corner. She died in 2001 at age 98.
Aquash was an Indigenous activist originally from Nova Scotia who moved to Boston in the 1960s to join the American Indian Movement. She was present at the Wounded Knee incident where Indigenous residents were taken hostage and participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties protests in 1972. Aquash went missing in 1975 and her body was found the following spring. It took almost three decades to charge anyone in her murder. Aquash left behind two young daughters when she died at age 30.
An African Nova Scotian activist dubbed “Canada’s own Stokely Carmichael” by the media, Jones grew up just outside Truro. After spending time in Montreal and Toronto with other activists, Jones moved back to Halifax with his wife Joan to found Kwacha House, the first program for youth in the city's north end. Jones invited Carmichael and other members of the Black Panther Party to Halifax in 1968. In his later life, Jones became a lawyer and got into politics. He died in 2013 at age 71.