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.