Growing Scrutiny of Public Art, Next Up: Edward Cornwallis

The sun is setting on the Edward Cornwallis statue.

Public art is getting long overdue scrutiny, from Confederate statues in Louisiana to historical paintings in the Minnesota State Capitol to the Scaffold sculpture controversy at the Walker Art Center. This is more than a few isolated incidents, it feels more like a movement.

This fact hit me square on while visiting Nova Scotia earlier this month. I wasn’t expecting any public art controversies, but there it was. I picked up a copy of the Globe and Mail and one of the first headlines I read said: Halifax mayor speaks out against protesters’ plan to remove Cornwallis statue. It was a familiar story:

Tensions over how Halifax honours its contentious founder are growing as a plan to topple the statue of Edward Cornwallis from a downtown park circulates on social media.

A Facebook event called “Removing Cornwallis” invites people to a protest Saturday to “peacefully remove” the large bronze statue from atop a large stone pedestal.

This is not a far-away story. This is our story, too. It’s one more facet of the Doctrine of Discovery and the European mindset towards indigenous peoples that spans our continent.

Cornwallis is controversial for the same reason that Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota’s first Governor, is controversial. Both men were agents of empire, forcing indigenous peoples from their lands. Both used brutal tactics. Cornwallis issued a proclamation promising a bounty for the scalp of every Mi’kmaq (also called Mi’kmaw, the First Nations people of Nova Scotia). Similarly, Ramsey put a bounty on Dakota scalps after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

Who Are the Mi’kmaq?

The Mi’kmaq are members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. They called their land Mi’kma’ki, according to the website Mi’kmaw Spirit. According to their history:

The earliest traces of their culture have been found at Debert, Nova Scotia, where a site is being excavated that dates back some 10,000 years.

After European contact, the British and French battled for more than a century to control Nova Scotia. The French claimed Nova Scotia as part of Acadia in the 1600s. They developed good relationships with the Mi’kmaw, intermarried and developed trade. The Mi’kmaw sided with the French Acadians against the British.

The British king appointed Cornwallis Governor of Nova Scotia. Cornwallis founded the city of Halifax in 1749 because of its deep-water port and good defenses, Wikipedia says.

The story that unfolded is a familiar one. Cornwallis needed to make peace with the Wabanaki Confederacy. He chose to negotiate peace agreements with remote members of the Confederacy, including only one band of the Mi’kmaq, Wikipedia said. Most of the Mi’kmaq who lived in the area considered Cornwallis’ Halifax/Dartmouth settlements a violation of previous treaties with the British.

[Mi’kmaq leaders] composed a letter to Cornwallis making it clear that, while they tolerated the small garrison at Annapolis Royal, they completely opposed settlement at Halifax: “The place where you are, where you are building dwellings, where you are now building a fort, where you want, as it were, to enthrone yourself, this land of which you want to make yourself absolute master, this land belongs to me”.

Cornawallis continued the settlement efforts, sparking renewed fighting and the bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps.

A List of Demands

The Mi’kmaq have called for removing Cornwallis’ statue for a long time, “saying his actions were a form of genocide,” according to another Globe and Mail story. The Saturday, July 15 protest drew 200 people, it said. Mi’kmaq leaders did not support removing the statue by force. The compromise was to temporarily shroud the statue during the day of the protest. A win, but not a long-term solution.

According to the story:

Annette Googoo, a resident of Millbrook First Nation outside Halifax, said she felt victorious in the moment, but more needs to be done and the statue has to come down. “To come here and see that – it’s not reconciliation at all, not one bit. Even just this: it’s a minute. In the lifetime of a Mi’kmaq person, it’s a minute,” she said.

Protestors issued three demands to the city’s mayor, Mike Savage. They were:

  1. The immediate removal of the statue

  2. For Savage to host a peace assembly to facilitate reconciliation

  3. To create an expert panel, including Indigenous people, “to look at the naming of all city public parks and places, ensure First Nation history and treaties are reflected in public spaces, and identify other acts of reconciliation for the city to carry out.”

The mayor promised to bring the demands to the Halifax Regional Council.

Beware the Overly Simple Solutions

I was not able to stay for the protest. I visited Cornwallis Park a few days prior. I took a few pictures and talked to a family of three sitting near the statue. I asked them what they thought of the controversy. The mother said: “Don’t take it down. It’s history. Put a plaque on the other side to tell the whole story.”

It’s a typical comment in these situations. (It is similar to what people said about efforts to remove offensive art from the Minnesota State Capitol: “It’s history. Just do a better job of interpretation.”)

Two problems with that approach as it concerns the Cornwallis statue. First, you can’t tell “the whole story” on a small plaque. More significant, regardless of what the plaque says, the larger-than-life statue elevates this man as a hero. There is no proportion between the story told by a plaque and the story told by the statue itself.

A comment and a question: We don’t necessarily watch the movies our grandparents watched or read the same books. We might not agree with the version of history they were raised with, either. Can we honor our grandparents and still have the right to have a say in who we hold up as our heroes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s