Halifax · Nova Scotia · Politics

What’s in a name?

“No regime bent on exterminating another peoples will describe their intent in so many words, since such intent is imbedded in the very operation of the system of extermination. On the contrary, the actions of the agencies of murder are enough proof of such intent, and therefore when the transporting of people into the conditions of disease and death is condoned and facilitated by a government, and when these crimes are concealed from the scrutiny of the world of the same government or other agencies, it can be safely asserted that this regime intends to annihilate the targeted people and is guilty before the world of crimes against humanity.” – Robert Jackson, chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials

Last night, Waye Mason put forward a motion to start investigating the renaming of several “Cornwallis” locations around the city, which was rejected in a close vote of 8-7.

Edward Cornwallis, if you don’t know, is historically written as being the founder of Halifax.  He was also a political leader who attempted to eliminate the Mi’kmaq settlements in the area by putting a bounty on their heads.  Yes, Halifax was established on a foundation of genocide.  It is a sad, dark aspect of our history.

Some people who are opposed to the re-naming of Cornwallis landmarks are accusing those who would like the issue to be put to the public for debate and input, of “re-writing history”.   No one is trying to re-write this history, or “white-wash” it and pretend it didn’t happen, as was suggested by Linda Mosher.  In fact, the motion put forward would shine a very bright light on that part of our history.

Mosher’s choice of the word “whitewash” was in extremely bad taste, and used incorrectly… unless she is trying to make the point that she, as councilor, wishes to uphold the racist legacy that Halifax was founded upon.  Why white-wash and pretend Halifax isn’t the racist city that it is?

I suppose the logic is; by taking down a statue of Cornwallis and renaming a park and a street, we would be denying that he was the main reason Europeans flourished here… White-washing indeed.

I don’t think those who want the changes, myself included, deny that Cornwallis was the main reason Europeans flourished here.  In fact, it is the very reason the changes are so important.  If you were a member of community who erected idols and celebrated a man who attempted to wipe out your ancestors, would you feel safe and secure and included in that community.  I wonder how people of Acadien descent would feel if there was a statue of Charles Lawrence erected in the city…

We erect statues and name things after people because we believe in the value of their contributions to our communities; that they were beneficial and cause to be celebrated.  Community values change though over time, and with them change the things we once believed to be beneficial and cause for celebration.  It is OK that this happens and appears to be the natural order of things as we become more connected and diverse and educated and compassionate citizens… this is what many of us call progress.

We do the same thing with symbols.  Sometimes though, symbols  need to be retired because they are associated with very bad, hateful politics and behaviour… the swastika and confederate flag are the two examples that immediately come to mind.  Some of us don’t want to see these symbols in mainstream culture or our communities because they have come embrace and symbolize violence targeted at a specific group of people.

These types of debates often lead to discussions of people’s “rights” to freedom of expression, which is a usually a very tricky area to navigate.  Where do my rights end and yours begin? And that is where the Social Contract is supposed to kick in.  You know, the whole thing where we have to surrender some of our individual rights for the benefit of society as a whole…

But I digress…

In rejecting a proposal to begin a public education and engagement process surrounding the legacy of Cornwallis, and whether or not we, as residents of HRM, wish to continue romanticizing and celebrating that legacy, over half of our elected officials have made the decision for us.  We are not allowed to have a discussion about our past, for fear that it will be “re-written”.

There is some re-writing that has to happen here no doubt, but it isn’t history that I am talking about… it is in our current political narratives.  We can’t change the past, its true, but that doesn’t mean we have to honor and celebrate it.  We can lay a foundation for a inclusive and socially just future by packing those old symbols and idols and names associated with violence and oppression away and finding new ones to replace them…  Let’s take them out of our parks and off our street signs buildings and put them into our museums and libraries where outdated cultural artifacts belong.

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