Moved by poem, councillor wants Halifax to revisit Cornwallis controversy

A stirring performance by Halifax's poet laureate has prompted one of the city's newest councillors to revisit the divisive issue of naming public sites after the controversial historical figure, Edward Cornwallis.

During Tuesday's weekly meeting, poet laureate Rebecca Thomas delivered an impassioned rendition of her poem, Not Perfect,  that called on the municipality to reconsider how it pays tribute to Cornwallis.

Cornwallis founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq men, women and children, in response to an attack on colonists.

Coun. Shawn Cleary, elected to council in 2016, found he couldn't get Thomas's persuasive, ringing words out of his head.

"What she said stuck with me," said Cleary, who gave notice at the end of the meeting that he intends to introduce a motion revisiting the naming of public assets that pay homage to Cornwallis, including a park in the city's south end that features a statue of his likeness.

Some historians and Mi'kmaq residents have long called for removal of tributes to Cornwallis, some calling his actions against their ancestors a genocide.

"It just seemed to me that we could not let that pass without doing something," Cleary said Wednesday in an interview.

Council has debated issue before

It's not the first time this issue has come before council.

The Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre and mostly black Cornwallis Street Baptist Church petitioned council last year to re-name Cornwallis Street.

In an 8-7 vote last May, council rejected Coun. Waye Mason's proposal seeking a discussion on updating municipal landmarks bearing Cornwallis's name.

At the time, Mason said ongoing debate about Cornwallis was "inevitable."

Thomas, whose poem earned a standing ovation, said in an interview she felt she had a duty to raise the uncomfortable issue.

"We are honouring a man who put a legal scalping proclamation on a grouping of individuals who still exist in this land," said Thomas, the city's first Mi'kmaq poet laureate.  

'Spiritual welts'

In her poem, she called Cornwallis a man "who prided himself on brutality" and used Mi'kmaq skins "as currency." 

"I'm asking for your help to heal generations of spiritual welts because we were seen as animals only valued for our pelts," she recited during the performance at council.

Thomas said she also used past quotes from sitting councillors to make her point — not to make anyone feel bad, but to hold them accountable.

Thomas said Halifax can remember Cornwallis's contribution but should not celebrate him.

"When you look at various other people in history [who have] committed these horrible atrocities, they tend not to be put in places of honour."

Moving forward

Cleary said Wednesday he "would be completely remiss as a councillor and frankly, as a human being" if he didn't reintroduce Mason's motion from last year.

"I think we are mature enough now as a society to have these kinds of discussions and not to have the discussions shut down, but to look at our past, what we've done in our past — whether we're proud of it or not — and look to the future," said Cleary.

"How do we move forward as a city?" 

He said the motion asks for a staff recommendation on what a public engagement process should look like. 

After the warm reception to her poem, Thomas said she is cautiously optimistic about the renewed interest in the debate.

"It's great if we get through city council and they have a motion to have a public conversation," she said. "But if the public isn't necessarily willing to listen and to have that conversation about a more inclusive history, another facet of history that makes them uncomfortable, then we have another conversation on our hands that we have to have."