HALIFAX – An African Baptist church that dates back to the early 1800s is changing its name to scrub it of any reference to Halifax’s controversial founder, who some say was guilty of a type of genocide against the Mi’kmaq.
Rev. Rhonda Britton of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church said Monday that a motion was accepted at a recent meeting to remove any connection to Edward Cornwallis, who founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women and children.
Britton said church members accepted the motion because the name perpetuates the harm done to the Mi’kmaq, who have long called for removal of municipal tributes to Cornwallis because of actions some have deemed to be genocidal.
“I was really pleased that folks seemed to grab hold of that and be excited by it,” she said. “The elders who have been here the longest are in favour the change. People recognize that you can’t change the history, but you don’t have to perpetuate the harm.”
Daniel Paul, a Mi’kmaq elder and author who has led the movement to remove Cornwallis’s name from city monuments, said he was pleased with the church’s decision. He had met with Britton soon after she took on the ministry in 2007 and has been a vocal advocate for the name change.
Paul said he’s not worried that history will be forgotten or sanitized if Cornwallis’s name is removed, adding that he will continue to be remembered for founding the city but doesn’t need to be “celebrated” on buildings, parks or streets.
“It will not be forgotten as long as I’m alive,” he said with a laugh, adding that he successfully encouraged a developer in the city not to name an office building after Cornwallis.
“I would like to see this province stop honouring the man as a public hero. He’s part of the history of Nova Scotia — you can’t change that and he should not be removed from history books — but I don’t think this man should be held up as a heroic figure.”
Halifax council rejected a bid last year to discuss updating municipal landmarks bearing Cornwallis’s name despite a simmering controversy over his violent approach to dealing with aboriginals. The motion was brought forward by Coun. Waye Mason and included letters from the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre and the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church asking that Cornwallis Street be renamed.
A spokesman for the city said in an email that because the motion was defeated, “there was nothing for staff to action or next steps to follow. The topic has not returned to council for further consideration,” Lucas Wide said in the email.
Last May, a statue of Cornwallis was vandalized days after the council refused to reconsider the motion on how the city honours him. Red paint was found on the statue’s base, plaque and nearby stones, with smaller splashes on the statue itself.
In 2013, vandals wrote “FAKE” in large red letters on the statue.
A plaque on the statue notes that Cornwallis founded the city in the 1700s, but doesn’t mention a scalping proclamation he issued against the Mi’kmaq, which promised “a reward of ten Guineas for every Indian Micmac taken or killed, to be paid upon producing such Savage taken or his scalp.”
Britton said the new name will be decided after a committee evaluates suggestions put forward by members of the church and they are put to a vote. It will likely be unveiled at a meeting in the summer of 2018 to coincide with renovations at the church, which has about 260 active members.
Paul said the move unites two groups that have suffered discrimination.
“Here’s a church named after a man who attempted to exterminate another race of people of colour,” he said.
“It shows a coming together of the Mi’kmaq and the black community to work together to get something done that’s positive. Both of us have suffered racial discrimination for a long, long period of time so it’s nice to see us begin to see a meeting of minds on a certain subject.”