What’s in a Name?

Canadian City, "Halifax," Honors a Genocidaire

People who exit the bus-train station in the downtown coastal Canadian city of Halifax1 face Cornwallis Park across the way. In the middle of the park is a bronze statue, tinged with verdigris, of the early colonist governor Edward Cornwallis, heralded as the founder of Halifax. A government of Canada plaque below the statue informs that Cornwallis “arrived in Chebucto Bay with a large body of settlers and proceeded to clear land and lay the town of Halifax.”

What the plaque fails to mention is that the site where Cornwallis directed the colonists/settlers to erect Halifax was on the Mi’kmaq settlement of Jipugtug (anglicized to Chebucto).2 The Mi’kmaq, considered themselves the sovereign power in Mi’kma’ki (the present day Maritimes),3 but Cornwallis did not recognize this sovereignty, and he did not consult the Mi’kmaq about his plans.

Halifax historians Judith Fingard, Janet Guildford, and David Sutherland wrote of Cornwallis’s attitude toward the Mi’kmaq: “That arrogance set in motion the train of events that led to tragic violence, the memories of which would long complicate race relations in colonial Nova Scotia.”4

What it did set in motion was the murder and dispossession of the Original Peoples of Mi’kma’ki, and one outcome was the eponymous honoring of the Cornwallis. Cornwallis has streets, schools, etc. named after him in the province.

Naming places and buildings after a person is common practice, but usually not when that person is an inciter of genocide. Principle 8 of Canadian Permanent Committee of Geographical Names states, “Personal names should not be used unless it is in the public interest to honor a person by applying such a name to the geographical feature. Names should be derived from persons who have significantly contributed to the features selected.”5

Author Daniel Paul wrote that Cornwallis and his council raised a “company of Volunteers” by offering a bounty on Mi’kmaq (women, children, infirm; it didn’t matter).6

The British had “unwavering resolve to dispossess the Mi’kmaq of everything and to subjugate them absolutely.”7 The Mi’kmaq were forced on to reserves too small to provide an adequate means of subsistence. This reduced the Mi’kmaq to a state of dependency, subordination, and internal colonization.8

Credentials of a Genocidaire

That Cornwallis is a genocidaire is apparent from the proclamation Cornwallis and his council issued on 1 October 1759. The proclamation set a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq. One can read from the proclamation:

That, in order to secure the Province from further statements of the Indians, some effectual methods should be taken to pursue them to their haunts, and show them because of such actions, they shall not be secure within the Province…

That a reward of ten guineas be granted for every Micmac taken, or killed.9

In 1750, the bounty was raised from 10 to 50 guineas. Paul said this bounty is still in effect, having never been repealed by the federal government.

To reclaim this sordid history, the Rename Cornwallis Initiative is underway, drafted by school teacher Cheryl Leblanc-Weldon and Paul, to redesignate these landmarks named after a genocidaire. The petition reads, in part:

To: To the Governments of Canada, Great Britain, the province of Nova Scotia, and all its municipalities and school boards

… Professor Geoffrey Plank of the University of Cincinnati comments about their rational [sic] for approving such a barbarous course of action:

“If the Micmac chose to resist his expropriation of land, the governor intended to conduct a war unlike any that had been fought in Nova Scotia before. He outlined his thinking in an unambiguous letter to the Board of Trade. If there was to be a war, he did not want the war to end with a peace agreement. ‘It would be better to root the Micmac out of the peninsula decisively and forever.’ The war began soon after the governor made this statement.”

Therefore, we the undersigned, because we firmly believe that no person who attempted genocide should, under any circumstances, receive public honors, express support for changing the name of all public entities such as schools, streets, parks, etc. which currently honor the name of Edward Cornwallis, founder of the British colonial city of Halifax which is currently the capital city of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada.

We ask this be done as a move towards restoring justice to the Mi’kmaq First Nation People of Nova Scotia. Governor Cornwallis, as part of the machinery of colonization, attempting to destroy them completely, oversaw the infliction of terrible suffering and indignities on men, women and children of the Mi’kmaq Nation. Morally, no Nation that self-describes itself as civilized, can justify honoring such a man. His action demands that he be condemned by honorable caring citizens, not honored!

Opposition has arisen to the Rename Cornwallis Initiative. Joseph Bogle calls accusations of genocide against Cornwallis “a blatant lie.” He has started a counter petition to preserve the name of Cornwallis that has garnered 12 signatures (as of 12 August 2009).

LeBlanc-Weldon said, “I am pleased with the progress of our petition as it continues to grow on a daily basis. I think the fact that the counter petition only has 12 signatures pretty much shows that there is not a vocal opposition to our desire for change.”

Bogle’s accusation is counter to the colonial records.10

Governmental Inaction

The former Nova Scotia heritage minister Bill Dooks argued against the redesignation. Dooks said, “Changing a name does not change what happened. I cannot change the past.” No one asked Dooks to change past events. The designations are current, and that is the change being sought.

The new social democratic government in Nova Scotia also seems uninterested in the redesignation. David Denny, advisor to Heritage Minister Percy Paris, communicated in a statement: “This is not a matter under consideration or review by the new government at this time.”

Changing Names

Redesignation has been the historical practice in Canada; witness the renaming of Mt. Stalin in British Columbia to Mt. Peck and renaming the Ontario town of New Berlin to Kitchener (who is held by many to be a war criminal himself11 ). Furthermore, many place names are reverting to their Indigenous names; for example, the Queen Charlotte Islands are now usually called Haida Gwaii, the Mackenzie River is Deh Cho, etc.

The renaming of landmarks, buildings, and institutions that honor the genocidaire Cornwallis should only be a beginning. The city of Amherst, “Nova Scotia” is named after British army officer Jeffery Amherst notorious for advocating biological warfare against Original Peoples.12

In front of the Halifax Public Library is a statue of the bulky mass of Winston Churchill — the man who advocated “spread[ing] a lively terror” with poison gas. His words reveal his racism: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas… I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes… ”13

Racism, and indifference, by Nova Scotians also affect the Rename Cornwallis campaign. “In some cases it’s a racist thing. They say ‘[the Mi’kmaq] lost, too bad’… or ‘lots of people did things wrong, it was war, don’t judge it by today’s standards.’ Others say ‘it doesn’t affect my life,’ but when they find out about it they say ‘yeah, it should change,’” said Leblanc-Weldon.14

  1. Jipugtug is the original designation by the indigenous Mi’kmaq people. Halifax is the colonial designation. []
  2. Judith Fingard, Janet Guildford, & David Sutherland, Halifax: The First 250 Years (Halifax: Formac Publishing, 1999): 8. []
  3. See map. []
  4. Fingard et al.: 13. []
  5. William B. Hamilton, The Macmillan Book of Canadian Place Names (Macmillan, 1978). []
  6. Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Press, 2000): 109-113. []
  7. Paul: 115. []
  8. Harald E.L. Prins, The Mi’kmaq: Resistance, Accommodation, and Cultural Survival (Harcourt Brace, 1996): 7. []
  9. “A Monstrous crime, a day to remember in Canadian history,” Shunpiking: People of the Dawn (First Nations Supplement), 13 (49), Fall 2007: 14. See also Daniel N. Paul, “British Scalp Proclamations: 1749 and 1750,” www.danielnpaul.com. []
  10. “It is ironic Europeans who were responsible for diminishing Mi’kmaq life documented much of what they were destroying – in explorer’s logs, trade letters, missionary letters, colonial records, and so forth.” Prins: 4. []
  11. See “The crimes,” AngloBoer.com. []
  12. Jeffrey Amherst and Smallpox Blankets,” Native Web. []
  13. Quoted in Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy (Noonday Press, 1992). []
  14. Ben Sichel, “Renaming Cornwallis,” The Dominion, 17 July 2009. []
Kim Petersen is an independent writer and former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on August 12th, 2009 at 11:58am #

    What’s in a name, they say. The American continent was never de-colonised and, nowadays, probably never can be. It wasn’t the native peoples who took back their countries from the invaders, as happened elsewhere, it was the colonists who declared Rhodesia-style UDI. From pole to pole, every country on the American continent is fruit of the poisoned tree of European colonialism and there are places of all sorts named after the colonial conquistadors all over the place. Re-naming places may be a good alibi for paleface’s souls, but it won’t change very much! The inhabitants of the continent need to free themselves from the idea that “Europeanness” equals superiority. Europeans got over that delusion in the 1960s.

    You’re caught between a Europe that doesn’t want you back and an American continent that your ancestors stole. It will take more than names to square that circle.

  2. United-Socialist-Front said on August 12th, 2009 at 12:04pm #

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    All of you here who love USA and the world try to think about the great need of saving USA from zionist-capitalists. I created a new blogger about how to create a United-Socialist Front for the 2012 Presidential Elections.

    And don’t tell me “buts” and “no”, in our active-nihilist world view, we don’t know the words: but and no. I know that a Third Party reaching power sounds like crazy, but politics is not an exact science and any thing is possible with the help of God and human will power

    This blog will be specifically to debate how can we create a United Socialist Front, composed of small socialist, communists, social-democrats, humanists and progressive political parties in United States, as a tool and vehicle for the 2012 Presidential Elections, so that each American Citizen who is tired of the corruption of the zionist-capitalists of the Democrats, and Republicans would have a real alternative to increase their living standards and to get out of poverty.

    Socialism is the only way that we can get out of poverty. So please think about a United Front in America as only goal of saving USA from poverty, bankruptcy and economic-collapse.

  3. The carpenter said on August 12th, 2009 at 12:26pm #

    I enjoyed the article. More like it should be hammered home everywhere, every day!

  4. Annie Ladysmith said on August 13th, 2009 at 12:20am #

    Was not Nova Scotia a French settlement before the British kicked every French farmer, woman, and child out during the winter, and stuffed them in boats to various destinations, and then slaughter their animals and burn their homesteads?? Was this place not called Acadie?? Why not tell the tragic story of the Acadiens also.
    I think the island has been cursed ever since that time.

  5. b99 said on August 13th, 2009 at 5:59am #

    Mostly true – but not quite all the French were evicted. (Those evicted became the New Orleans Cajun population.) Some remained, especially in Cape Breton. Essentially however, it was part of a war between two imperial powers over what had been Injun land. Many of the French settlers – or ancestors – were from Brittany and Normandy – the poorer margins of France. In the scheme of things, they were part of the colonial effort – but also its victims.

  6. russell olausen said on August 15th, 2009 at 4:07pm #

    There are not too many places on this planet that the ghosts of victims of robbery and displacement are not howling.This past winter I happened on a couple of Palestinian demonstrations over the Gaza slaughter where the lyrics of one song went : “Words. Just words.” Over and over.That is why Halifax, Cornwallis, and Amherst were remembered, they went beyond words. Better the names stay for those who accurately are not afraid to remember.