Thursday 23 June 2011

Geoffrey Plank’s work contributes to the renaming of a Nova Scotia Junior High School

Nova Scotia Governor Edward Cornwallis has long been celebrated in the province as the founder of the capital Halifax.  His name is attached to several landmarks, including a park in the centre of the city, where a statue honouring him was erected in 1931.  In his 1994 Princeton dissertation, and in his subsequent book An Unsettled Conquest, UEA School of American Studies Professor Geoffrey Plank recounted in detail how Cornwallis conducted his campaign against the local indigenous people, the Mi’kmaq.  While he was still on shipboard, anchored off the coast where he planned to establish Halifax, he resolved to offer bounties for the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women and children. 

Plank’s work appeared just as a local campaign to remove Cornwallis’s name from local landmarks was gaining momentum.  The driving force behind this effort was the Mi’kmaq elder Danny Paul.  Paul’s sweeping history of the Mi’kmaq people, We Were Not the Savages, first appeared in 1994, is now in its third edition.  Paul helped publicize Plank’s work and partly as a consequence, Plank received attention in the local press, including an extended article in 1998 which was accompanied by an editorial cartoon, above, mocking the statue in Cornwallis Park.

Paul has pursued his campaign tirelessly since the 1980s, but a critical turning point came in 2008, when Cheryl LeBlanc-Weldon, a local elementary school teacher, began circulating an online petition to remove Cornwallis’s name from all streets, parks, schools and other public institutions.  The petition quoted Plank’s scholarly work, and it was circulated in the Mi’kmaq language and French as well as English.  More than 3,000 signatures were collected, and within a year the campaign had its first success, when the Canadian coastguard’s icebreaker Edward Cornwallis was decommissioned, and the coastguard promised not to launch another vessel with that name.  The campaign has continued, and responding to increasing pressure, on June 21, 2011, the Halifax Regional School Board voted unanimously to change the name of Cornwallis Jr. High School.   After the vote, Paul suggested that Cornwallis Park should be renamed Freedom Park, and new statue erected “to all the immigrants who came to this country and helped to build the country into the powerhouse that it is.” 

Within a week of the appearance of the online petition, one local historian wrote Plank to warn him, “If the petition were fully accepted and acted upon, the name of a Nova Scotia town would be changed, the names of several military installations would be altered, street names would be revised, and a number of schools and parks would be renamed.”  The writer suggested that the result would be disastrous.  “This bit of proposed historical revisionism seems like a throwback to the Stalin era in the USSR.”  The campaign to rename the Cornwallis landmarks has always been locally-led, and though Plank’s name appeared in the text of the petition, he did not sign it or directly participate in the subsequent debate.

UPDATE 18/08/2011: The campaign has now extended to the Cornwallis River, as reported here.

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