(A tarped Edward Cornwallis statue sits in Halifax. Photo: Trina Roache/APTN)
APTN National News
Hundreds of people gathered in Halifax to see the statue of Edward Cornwallis shrouded during a Mi’kmaw ceremony Saturday afternoon.
Mi’kmaw women organized the rally to remove the controversial statue – which didn’t happen.
While some are disappointed it still stands, others said the rally made progress in a respectful and peaceful way.
“It was very beautiful. Our elders’ vision was accomplished by having him veiled,” said Suzanne Patles, a Mi’kmaw woman who helped organize the rally. “Our youth, indigenous women and men were able to voice their concerns on what this statue means to them in terms of genocide, colonialization, and hatred and bigotry.”
Mi’kmaq Elder Isabelle Knockwood performed a ceremony, circling the base of the statue to face the four directions.
“The purpose of this ceremony is to ground us in the present. Because we bring our history and our history here in Nova Scotia regarding this man is ugly,” said Knockwood. “But I want you to understand also, you are on unceded land. “
With ceremony, songs and a massive round dance, the rally had a celebratory feel. A Halifax city truck drove close to the statue, raising its bucket up high so city workers could lay a tarp over the statue.
“My heart is just exploding,” said Junior Joseph Peters, who travelled from the Mi’kmaq community of Paqtnkek. “I just sang the honour song with everything I had, just make sure everybody heard.”
While he’d like to see the statue come down, Peters said the symbolic gesture was important.
“It’s a happy day,” said Peters. “I’m very proud to be here today to support my people and to cover this guy up.”
The movement to take down the statue picked up steam after five Proud Boy members disrupted an Indigenous ceremony on Canada Day.
Chief Grizzly Mama cut off her hair to honour the suffering colonialism has wrought for Indigenous people.
(Chief Grizzly Mama. Photo Trina Roache/APTN)
The incident drew international media attention. And as plans formed to remove the statue, so did concerns over the potential for violence.
The plan to veil the statue instead came about when Halifax Mayor Mike Savage met with rally organizers and Mi’kmaq leaders on Friday.
“In my view it was about safety and peace and allowing people to make their positions known without anybody getting hurt,” said Savage.
During the ceremony, Patles handed Savage a list of calls to action.
1. The immediate removal of the Edward Cornwallis statue as it represents a symbol of genocide.
2. Host a Peace Assembly to facilitate reconciliation
3. To create an Indigenous-Halifax Expert Panel to ensure names of public parks and other places are respectful and reflect the history of Indigenous Peoples.
Then Savage took his turn with the bullhorn.
“My message to you is that we come with an open heart, in the spirit of reconciliation and understanding,” Savage told the crowd.
(Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. Photo: Trina Roache/APTN)
Then, with urging from the crowd, the mayor was rewarded with cheers when he acknowledged:
“This is the unceded traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq.”
But Savage didn’t make any firm commitments beyond taking the calls to action to his city council meeting on Tuesday.
In the spring, the council voted to form an expert advisory committee to look at whether the city should keep commemorating Cornwallis.
While the Mi’kmaq are demanding answers by October – Mi’kmaq History month – that committee won’t even be formed until September. The timeline and outcome of the committee’s work are unclear.
“The issue of the clear mistreatment of our First Nations’ people across Canada including the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia has gone on for hundreds of years,” said Savage. “This statue has been here for almost nine decades. Less than three months ago, our council took the step of saying let’s try to figure this out. I’m proud of that.”
Mi’kmaw historian Dan Paul has fought for three decades to have the statue removed. In his book, We Were Not the Savages, Paul details the genocidal policies of Edward Cornwallis.
While the British military leader is honoured as the found of Halifax, he issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women and children.
79-year old Paul wasn’t well enough to attend the rally, but his daughter, Cerena Paul came in his stead.
“It’s like a Hitler statue being in a Jewish community that the Jewish people have to drive by every day,” said Paul. “It’s mentally disturbing to people that have to live here. I’ve lived in this city my whole life. I don’t like to drive down here. Because of what it represents to me and my family. It’s just something that needs to go.”
Police watched the events from the perimeter of the park. Despite the concerns over violence in the days leading up to the rally, there were no arrests. The ceremony was peaceful.
And when one man did confront the Mi’kmaq, arguing in favour of Cornwallis, the Mi’kmaq chanted to the media, “Stop filming.”
This rally, they said, was a time for Mi’kmaq voices to be heard and not a platform for the white supremacists.
A wide mix of people attended the rally, most in support of the Mi’kmaq.
Omiri Haven said, “I would love to see the statue taken down so I can be proud to live in Halifax. We still have a lot of work towards decolonization and this is only a part of it.”
Haven is critical of media coverage that gave the Proud Boys a platform, but said is sparked a public conversation and chance for education.
“Starting July 1, the conversation was about the hatred, and as grassroots women we were able to transform that conversation into what the real issues are,” said Patles. “How this is a symbol of genocide. And that we want him removed. We were able to turn the tables and have everybody hear our story…our true history. Our version of who we are.”
Not everyone was satisfied.
Chief Grizzly Mama was at the center of the Canada Day ceremony, interrupted by the Proud Boys. And she was honoured at this rally.
She understands there’s a process to removing the statue, but said she was quite upset it was not coming down today and when it was unveiled.
“He should stay veiled until he comes down. They’re just putting a bandage on a big wound. That’s not going to help us.”
And sure enough, three hours after the ceremony began, the tarp covering Cornwallis was removed.
Elizabeth Marshall, a Mi’kmaq woman who helped organize the ceremony, had expections on todays ceremony.
“I thought we were supposed to take him down like they took down Saddam… and Stalin.”
But Marshall said after guidance from Mi’kmaw elders, a new plan was formed, one more consistent with Mi’kmaq values and traditions.
“We’re going to take him down with ceremony. We’re going to take him down with prayer,” said Marshall. “We’re going to do it with tobacco, we’re going to do it with song.”
And Patles said the pressure is on now for city council to speed up the process of selecting committee members .
“We may not agree with the process but it’s sped up a lot faster,” said Patles. “And if we’re not satisfied. We’re back here.”