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Why Rename Cornwallis Jr. high?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

This week the Halifax Regional School Board voted unanimously to re-name Cornwallis Jr. High School in South End Halifax. The motion was brought forward by Kirk Arsenault, Mi'kmaq representative on the Board, and was largely influenced by the 25-year campaign of Daniel Paul, Mi'kmaq historian.

Edward Cornwallis, celebrated by mainstream Nova Scotian society for centuries as the 'founder of Halifax,' put a generous bounty on the scalps of Mi'kmaq men, women and children during his short stay in Nova Scotia. While Paul says it's impossible to know how many died as a result of the bounty, the order undeniably had a powerful effect. You can read his take on Cornwallis here.

The following is from a presentation to the school board before they voted on the re-naming resolution.


My name is Ben Sichel, and I teach Mi’kmaq Studies 10 at Prince Andrew High School here in Dartmouth. As a non-Aboriginal person who talks about Aboriginal issues in the classroom on a daily basis, I felt it was important to come speak in support of Kirk Arsenault’s motion to re-name Cornwallis Jr. High School.
As some of you may be aware, Mi’kmaq Studies 10 is a very popular course in our school board right now. In each of the 4 years I’ve been at my current school, more students have taken it than have taken Canadian History 11 or African Canadian Studies combined – this despite the fact that our school has virtually no self-identifying Aboriginal population. Through teaching about Aboriginal issues to mostly non-Aboriginal students, it’s become apparent to me that we still have much work to do in terms of fostering respectful, productive relationships between native and non-native people in this region, and honouring the place of Mi’kmaq people in our shared history. Harmful, unjust stereotypes and misconceptions about Aboriginal people are still present in the mainstream of our society, and these do real harm not only to them, but to Nova Scotia as a whole.
The issue of re-naming monuments to Cornwallis comes up every year in my class, and I’ve heard many of the common arguments against it. People say you can’t change history. This is true – but you can choose who you honour in history. You can decide whose names will be on our public buildings, streets, towns and military bases, whose faces will be immortalized on statues, and generally how people perceive a historical figure.
People also say, well, this all happened a very long time ago. It is true that 260 years does seem like along time – although if your ancestors have lived in this land for more than 12,000 years, it might not seem like so long at all. More importantly though, dismissing the injustices perpetuated against Aboriginal people as having all happened in the distant past ignores the fact that many have happened well within living memory, and unfortunately continue to this day; from Shubenacadie Residential School, to the jailing of Donald Marshall Jr., to the Burnt Church fishing dispute, to the paper mill dumping toxic waste into Boat Harbour, Pictou County – and these are just local examples.
Finally, people argue that no one’s perfect – that Cornwallis’s scalp bounty happened in the context of the time, and that he did also found the city of Halifax. This argument requires us to look deeper into history and ask questions like: was this normal in the context of the time? Was this an even war between rivals with an equally just claim to their goals? Who decides, and how do we decide who to honour in history?
Well, without going too deep into it, as this could be a very long board meeting, we can instead ask some shorter questions: what exactly would be lost by re-naming Cornwallis Jr. High School? Can we find ways to learn and respect our history without causing offense to the original people of this land, without whom no European settlers would have survived?
At the very least, we can tell the whole story. Yes, tell about how Cornwallis brought 2,000 British settlers to Nova Scotia, but don’t leave out the part about the bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps – of men, women, and yes, children.
You have the opportunity, with this motion, to make a historic contribution to peace and justice in this province and to send a positive message to students, parents and teachers. I sincerely hope you will take it. Thank you.

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726 words


Motion full text

WHEREAS the naming of a school after Edward Cornwallis is deeply
offensive to members of our Mi'kmaq communities and to Nova Scotians
generally who believe school names should recognize persons whose
contributions to society are unblemished by acts repugnant to the values we
wish our schools to embody and represent; and
WHEREAS Edward Cornwallis, as Governor of Nova Scotia, authorized the
killing of Mi’kmaq persons, including women and children, and offered a
bounty for such killing, this board finds the naming of a public school after
him to be inappropriate and unacceptable; and
WHEREAS the Native Council of Nova Scotia, representing the off-reserve
Mi'kmaq communities of Nova Scotia, has unanimously passed a motion
requesting that the name of the school be changed; and
WHEREAS the policy of the Halifax Regional School Board, Code A.001
"Naming School Facilities" , specifies in clause 5.0 that "When a school
and/or a community group wishes to rename a school facility a rationale for a
change must be approved by the Board prior to the initiation of the process;"
BE IT RESOLVED that the Halifax Regional School Board advise the
Cornwallis Junior High School Community, through its Principal, that the
name of the school is no longer acceptable to the Board and the Board invites
the community to propose an alternative name for the school.

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