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Bid launched to rename N.S. river honouring contentious historical figure

September 11, 2017 - 1:45 PM

KENTVILLE, N.S. - A debate sweeping the country over the naming of monuments and places after contentious historical figures has found a new flashpoint in rural Nova Scotia.

A Scottish immigrant has launched a bid to change the name of the Cornwallis River, a roughly 50-kilometre tidal waterway that meanders through the Annapolis Valley, as well as the name of a bridge that crosses the river.

Isobel Hamilton of Centreville, N.S., said Edward Cornwallis, the former governor of Nova Scotia who issued a bounty on Mi'kmaq scalps, also played a brutal role at the Battle of Culloden, violently suppressing the Jacobite rebellion in her Scottish homeland.

But she said her motivation isn't about scrubbing Cornwallis's name from history, but rather recognizing the province's Indigenous roots.

"Remembering history is about remembering all of history and there is not a lot to remember the Mi'kmaq history by," Hamilton, who moved to Nova Scotia about four years ago, said Monday.

"You can't undo the things that have happened in the past but it would be nice if the Indigenous presence here before the arrival of the Europeans was reflected in place names and landmarks."

Upon learning of Hamilton's petitions, the Town of Kentville covered up the name Cornwallis on a poster of a new bridge set to be built next year, noting that it never intended to name the crossing after Cornwallis.

Instead, chief administrative officer Mark Phillips said Cornwallis Bridge was an internal working name and that council passed a motion two years ago to name the new span after Kentville’s longest-serving mayor, Wendell Phinney.

A rendition of the long-awaited new bridge was printed on a large sign to show locals the design, he said, and the town regrets the confusion caused by the oversight of leaving the working name in place.

Still, calls remain for the province to rename the Cornwallis River, with Hamilton's petition suggesting the original Mi'kmaq name of Jijuktu’kwejk should be restored.

In 2015, Premier Stephen McNeil had a sign for the Cornwallis River removed at the request of a Mi'kmaq elder, but no further steps were taken to rename the waterway.

The controversy over naming places and statues in honour of historical figures with checkered pasts reached a boiling point in Charlottesville, Va., last month when a violent white nationalist protest over the proposed removal of a Confederate army general's statue left one person dead and dozens injured.

In Ontario, teachers are pushing to have the name of Canada’s first prime minister wiped from a handful of schools across the province. The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said in August that it wants Sir John A. Macdonald's name pulled because of what it calls his role as the "architect of genocide against Indigenous Peoples.''

Halifax has been the focal point of the polarizing debate over Cornwallis in Nova Scotia, with city council voting last spring for a staff report on the commemoration of the city's founder on municipal assets, including Cornwallis Park and Cornwallis Street.

A city spokesman said Monday the report, which will include the terms of reference and a recommended composition for an expert panel that will review the issue, is expected to go before council in the coming weeks.

"The goal is to identify a path forward that better recognizes the history of the Mi'kmaq, and other Indigenous peoples, as part of our shared history in Nova Scotia," Brendan Elliott said in an email.

Although he said it's too early to say what the panel may propose to council, Elliott said the removal of the statue is among the possible options that could be put forward.

A bronze statue of Cornwallis, who founded Halifax in 1749 during his term as governor, stands in a downtown park.

Mi'kmaq groups have long argued that the statue should be removed, and have called his actions a form of genocide against Indigenous peoples. Members of the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi'kmaq Chiefs agree that the statue should come down.

A number of rallies have been held at the park, most recently in solidarity with the violence in Charlottesville, where speakers drew comparisons between the movement to remove the colonial governor's likeness and efforts to take down statues in the southern United States commemorating Confederacy leaders.

Meanwhile, the largely black Cornwallis Street Baptist Church said earlier this year it would change its name, and an office and retail complex on Halifax's busy Spring Garden Road has quietly changed its name to the Bond Building from Cornwallis House.

- By Brett Bundale in Halifax

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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