Mi'kmaq to rename coast guard's Edward Cornwallis icebreaker

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs will recommend a new name for the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Edward Cornwallis, in partnership with the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the coast guard.

Cornwallis, a governor of Nova Scotia who was a British military officer, founded Halifax in 1749. He issued a so-called "scalping proclamation" the same year, offering a bounty to anyone who killed Mi'kmaw men, women and children. 

"It's a good move toward reconciliation," said Mi'kmaw Elder and author Daniel Paul.

Paul is known in the province for his advocacy for First Nations rights and recognition of Canada's history of oppression of Indigenous peoples, and pushed for the removal of the Edward Cornwallis statue in Halifax. 

Cornwallis's name has previously been removed from buildings in Halifax, and a street in Sydney, N.S. 

"To me, no civilized society should idolize any man or woman that would be part [of] such a barbaric thing," said Paul. 

The coast guard and DFO said Tuesday the ship's new name is expected to be announced before a re-dedication to service ceremony in 2021. It will be named "to honour former leaders who have made significant contributions to the country," as per a coast guard policy.

Paul said he wrote to DFO and CCG Minister Bernadette Jordan in March, when the department announced the icebreaker would be refurbished. He also reached out to Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs to encourage them to push for the change. 

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"I made it plain that [the name] was an affront to us," said Paul.

"I pleaded the case of the Mi'kmaq being victimized by colonial governors with their scalp proclamations, and explained it all to her ... and she came through."

'A historic wrong'

Ideas for the ship's new name, including some recommended by Dan Paul, are already being considered, said Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation, one of the co-chairs of the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaw Chiefs. 

He said the Mi'kmaq and federal government needed to begin acknowledging the "horrific history of injustice and inequality," together, and that he believed renaming the ship was a way to do that.

"It's important to us that its new name will reflect the honour and spirit of reconciliation," he said. 

"It is our hope that moving forward through this process ... we can open up a new dialogue that will be inclusive and respectful. It's everyone's duty to speak out against discrimination and injustice." 

Jordan said the partnership is the "first step forward" in developing a better relationship with the Mi'kmaq, as there have been years of tensions between DFO and First Nations fishermen in the Atlantic region. 

Craig Paisley/CBC

"This is righting a historic wrong," she said.

"This is something that we know is extremely important to the Mi'kmaw people and it's something that we are able to concretely act on as quickly as we can." 

Jordan said since taking her ministerial role in the department, she's learned "so much" from First Nations leaders in the region, including the history of influential Mi'kmaw figures like Donald Marshall Jr. and the rights of First Nations communities to harvest wildlife. 

"Making sure that we're able to move forward on a true path of reconciliation, recognizing those those rights that are enshrined, is extremely important to us," she said.