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Taking down Cornwallis: historians weigh in on removal of statue

Using the Witt test as the criteria to assess the Cornwallis statue

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caption After Sunday’s rally in Cornwallis park to celebrate the statue’s removal, three Mi’kmaq men assembled a tipi to protest Alton Gas.

The statue of Edward Cornwallis stood in a park named after him since 1931. Last week the statue was removed, to the joy of some and disappointment of others.

Daniel Paul, Mi’kmaq activist, historian and author of We Were Not the Savages, attended the Sunday celebration of the statue’s removal. While being thanked by other Mi’kmaq activists, Paul stood on the statue’s former pedestal.

caption Daniel Paul stands with other Mi’kmaq members to celebrate the removal of the Cornwallis statue.
Sonia Koshy

For Paul, the glaring conflict between Cornwallis’s actions and the current values of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada was reason enough to remove the statue.

“It’s very contrary to Mi’kmaq values to have a statue of a man that advocated what today would be termed genocide,” says Paul.

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Cornwallis’s infamy is largely based on a 1749 proclamation he issued which asked for scalps of Mi’kmaq people in exchange for money.

However, others disagree that monuments should be renamed or removed based on current values alone.

The Witt test

Peter Shawn Taylor, editor-at-large at Maclean’s, recommended, in a 2017 op-ed, that groups in Canada use the Witt test to decide whether a monument deserves to be renamed. The test, he argued, would bring a degree of order to debates that are overly emotional and political.

The test was created by John Witt, a professor of history at Yale. Answers to the questions should be weighed against each other when deciding whether to rename a monument.

In terms specific to Edward Cornwallis, the conditions are:

  1. Is the principal legacy of Cornwallis fundamentally at odds with our current values?
  2. Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which Cornwallis lived?
  3. Was the Cornwallis statue erected for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with our current values?
  4. Does Cornwallis play a substantial role in forming community in Halifax?

The test is supposed to centre the debate on historical facts rather than political argument, but there will still be disagreements over how to interpret the facts.

The Signal asked two historians to apply the Witt test to Cornwallis.

Cornwallis’s principal legacy

Is the principal legacy of Cornwallis fundamentally at odds with our current values?

John Boileau is the author of a dozen books on history. He has also written hundreds of opinion pieces for Halifax newspapers and has helped write articles, including one on Cornwallis, for the Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society.

Boileau says that Cornwallis’s principal legacy is that he founded Halifax in 1749.

“No matter what he did elsewhere and here, he certainly deserves to be recognized as the founder of this city,” he says.

However, the founding of Halifax isn’t seen in the same light by others. John Reid is a professor of history at Saint Mary’s University and is the author of The Three Lives of Edward Cornwallis.

For Reid, Cornwallis’s primary legacy is a “serious effort of settler colonialism” — a legacy which does not accord with our current set of values.

Merely a man of his time?

Was the relevant principal legacy significantly contested in the time and place in which Cornwallis lived?

Boileau and Reid both relate this second question to scalping, which is an intrinsic part of what they each claim as Cornwallis’s principal legacy.

Boileau says Cornwallis’s was “a violent, turbulent time.” In North America in the 1600s and 1700s, “it was regular practice” among British, French, Acadians and Mi’kmaq to take scalps.

“No one comes out blameless here,” says Boileau. To him this means that in 1749, scalping was too common to be “significantly contested,” as Witt’s test requires.

Reid agrees that Cornwallis’s scalping bounty proclamations were “by no means unprecedented.” However, there is evidence that Cornwallis wasn’t simply a man obeying orders from above. Reid says Cornwallis had instructions from Britain to maintain friendly relationships with the Indigenous inhabitants. He did not abide by these instructions, which means that he may have been more brutal than others of his time.

Reid also warns against conflating the scalping done by the British with that done by the Mi’kmaq.

“It’s important to remember who was the invader and who was invaded. When people get invaded, they revolt,” he says.

The statue: Celebration of heritage or imperial icon?

Was the Cornwallis statue erected for reasons that are fundamentally at odds with our current values?

In 1931, Canadian National Railways provided most of the money to erect the statue, which cost $20,000 at the time. The railway thought it would help welcome tourists to the city and, as Boileau says, British pride was high during the interwar period. To Boileau, the statue was created to honour Canada’s British heritage — a reason which is not fundamentally at odds with Canadian values.

Reid doesn’t see this heritage as value neutral.

“How many people do you see today who think it’s a wonderful thing to glorify British colonialism?” he asks.

To this, Boileau would point to the many marks of British heritage in Canadian institutions, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Governor General and the names of military ships. He argues these examples show that marks from colonial Britain aren’t always harmful.

Who cares?

Does Cornwallis play a substantial role in forming community in Halifax?

To both Boileau and Reid, this is the least important point in the test. The Cornwallis statue is only a statue, so it’s hard to see how it plays a substantial role in community-building.

In debates about other names, like those attached to Ryerson University or the Town of Amherst, it’s easier to see how the larger community would be affected by renaming.

However, Boileau argues that the figure of Cornwallis and history in general play a significant role in Halifax’s identity, so removing the statue chips away at both of these.

caption The statue was removed from its pedestal on Jan. 31.
Julie Lawrence

‘White men’s conditions’

While Boileau and Reid disagree with each other within the confines of the test, Daniel Paul disagrees with the test itself. He calls the Witt test “white men’s conditions.”

Paul says it fails to take into account the Mi’kmaq perspective at any point in the process, and the test uses a British perspective when evaluating Cornwallis during his day. When evaluating the statue’s erection, it’s from a 1930s Canadian perspective. And when the test accounts for today’s values, it doesn’t employ specifically Mi’kmaq ones.

Paul’s personal test is simpler: Cornwallis scalped people and shouldn’t be honoured.

“None of (the colonial figures) should be,” he says.

He thinks that as North Americans continue to learn more about Indigenous history, monuments to colonial figures will continue to be renamed.

Already in Halifax, a school formerly called Cornwallis Junior High was renamed to Halifax Central Junior High School. The Cornwallis Street Baptist Church has also pledged to change its name.

“Across Canada and the United States there’s a whole progressive movement to get rid of colonial heroes of the past who committed atrocities,” he says.

The Cornwallis statue is now in storage at an undisclosed location. Over the next few months, Halifax regional council will decide its fate.

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  1. A


    Why just Cornwallis? Halifax is named after Lord Halifax: colonialism if ever there was. And Ottawa, imposed as capital by Queen Victoria...and on and on and on. Cornwallis is part of our history. No part of history is ever perfect. Even the seemingly sainted Mi'kmaq will have parts of their history that would not stand 21st century scrutiny. The lesson learned is that history cannot be forgotten if we are to learn its lessons. Censorship is never the answer.
  2. D

    Daniel Paul

    In view of the onslaught that the citizens of the American Indigenous Nations were facing, who were being butchered, robbed and dispossessed by invaders that were armed to the teeth with lethal weaponry, it should come as no surprise that they fought back heroically to preserve their freedom and countries. The twisted result of the before mentioned, in view of white supremacist attitudes prevailing, does not surprise either, but it does defy logical rational reasoning. Because the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas fought the brutal European invaders with all means available to them to preserve the territory and freedom that the Great Spirit had given them, the Indigenous resisters were, and still are depicted by many as the villains. Thus, when a logical and reasonable person, with honesty contemplates the result, he/she cannot help but conclude that it is incredible in the extreme to find that in the overall scheme of things the Indigenous victims are the villains, while the European bandits are the heros. Such an outcome makes as much sense as would a murder victim's family being ostracized and victimized because they caused discomfort for the murderer. Author of We Were Not the Savages, the only fully researched history of the confrontation between the British and the Mi'kmaq.
  3. D


    The problem with white male Canadians is they will not protest anything!!! Daniel Paul and the native community should look in their own backyard before pi##ing in someone else's. The native took scalps too. Should w e start renaming lakes? Dan
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