Inside the Indigenous Fight to Reshape Canada’s History

From monuments to street names, communities are questioning how we celebrate our nation's founding

Photograph by David Kirsch
David Kirsch

In late July, Tayla Fern Paul stood in front of downtown Halifax’s Edward Cornwallis statue, ready to correct history. For a few minutes, she just contemplated the imposing figure, a monument to the eighteenth-century British general and supposed founder of the city. Then she grabbed a white piece of sidewalk chalk, knelt down, and, with a few strokes, the young Mi’kmaw mother, activist, and artist began to write at the base of the statue. She knew the chalk was ephemeral, but it didn’t matter. Wealthy British settlers had erected the monument as a tourist attraction in 1931, at a moment of fervent postwar nationalism, and she felt people needed to know that. It was also important that they understand that Cornwallis’s efforts to “clear land and lay out the town of Halifax” included clearing out the Mi’kmaq, who resisted. If the chalk washed her writing away, she would come back, Paul decided, again and again, until it was no longer needed.

As she worked, a large white man approached her, a motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm. To Paul, his aggression felt palpable, so she asked him to leave. He refused. Instead, he began to lecture her, defending Cornwallis and what the man saw as his legacy. Paul knew better, of course. Unable to quell the Mi’kmaq resistance on the peninsula in 1749, Cornwallis put a bounty on the scalp of every Mi’kmaq person in mainland Nova Scotia, including children. Put simply, he wanted them gone. His “Scalping Proclamation” followed the Mi’kmaq raid on Dartmouth that same year, which eventual lead to a brutal, expensive, and unsuccessful war, which military historian John Grenier has compared to the Vietnam bloodbath. Paul doubted the man towering over her was interested in learning any of that, so she left.

On her way home, a police officer stopped her. Someone—likely, she later thought, the man she’d just fled—had reported her history-correcting chalk work as vandalism. She defended it, stressing that writing in sidewalk chalk is not illegal. It didn’t seem to matter. Paul says she was tightly handcuffed and violently wrestled to the ground. Her wrists were still cut and swollen when we spoke the next day. She also had bruises on her knees, legs, and shoulder. Ultimately, she wasn’t arrested. “I think if they were to charge me,” she says, laughing, “they would probably have to charge a lot of five-to-seven-year-olds.”

But then her tone shifts. Paul has grown up seeing generations of other Mi’kmaq individuals, like herself, struggle to live in “urban environments” away from family and any kind of support network that may include Mi’kmaq culture. In Halifax, despite a 6,000-strong population, there are no markers honouring Mi’kmaq people or history anywhere in the city. Yet, Cornwallis prominently stands there, like a beacon of settler pride that mocks the Mi’kmaq people’s existence. That’s why Paul joined the movement to take down Cornwallis statue, a struggle that has gone on for more than three decades in Halifax. “There’s the oppression of living in a society that doesn’t have racial inclusion,” she says, “and then there is this symbol in the middle of the park just to fortify those messages.”

In addition to the fight over Cornwallis, groups across the country have embarked on similar struggles to dethrone monuments to less-than-savoury historical characters who are associated, in one way or another, with the colonization and attempted extermination of Indigenous peoples and nations. Paul sees the growing backlash against the once-venerated as a positive turn. While she admits taking down monuments won’t suddenly bring about reconciliation with Indigenous communities, she says doing so would go a long way in paving the road towards a better future.

“If you want to talk about reconciliation,” she says, “those reminders need to be taken away.”

During the 2015 federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau pushed hard in favour of reconciliation with Indigenous populations and for the building of a “nation-to-nation relationship.” Lauding reconciliation is one thing, but actually reconciling the truth about this country’s colonial makeup and its continuing effects on Indigenous peoples takes more fortitude and will.

The public’s reluctance to confront our history, however, can be seen in the resistance to the idea of bringing monuments down. One of the most recent headline-making cases concerned toppling the legacy Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, whose face is plastered on our ten-dollar bills. He was also an early proponent of the residential school system and other genocidal policies against Indigenous peoples. As famine hit Indigenous communities, for instance, Macdonald bragged about denying them food as a way to clear the way for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. “We are doing all we can,” he once said, “by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”

It is hard to estimate just how many monuments and institutions there are in Canada that celebrate such historical figures, perhaps because they are ubiquitous—from our money and our schools to our government buildings and street names, this country is founded on colonialism, violence, and genocide. In an attempt to correct some of this dark history, Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer successfully brought forward a motion earlier this year called The 150+ Place Naming Project, which aims name and rename city buildings, streets, and public spaces to reflect the area’s rich Indigenous history. A plan of action is expected no later than December. In the meantime, Indigenous peoples are starting where they can.

In Toronto, the Indigenous Association of Students at Ryerson University and the student union are demanding to have the university’s name changed. The downtown university is named after Egerton Ryerson, who, on one hand, is credited with the creation of Ontario’s public school system and, on the other, advocated for a separate educational system and treatment for Indigenous children. His ideas would later be used to develop the residential school system. The school has responded by installing a plaque that outlines some of Ryerson’s mixed legacy beside the school’s Ryerson statue.

Already, there’s been some success. In Ottawa, various Indigenous leaders, including MPs and the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, successfully pushed the federal government to rename Langevin Block this summer. Hector-Louis Langevin was a Father of Confederation and also one of the residential school system’s most ardent supporters. During a speech to Parliament in 1883, for instance, Langevin, a Conservative MP from Quebec, argued in favour of taking Indigenous children away from their parents, saying that they would otherwise “remain savages.” His name was also removed from a bridge in Calgary, which was renamed Reconciliation Bridge in January.

Without protests, argue Indigenous activists, it’s likely nothing will get changed. For Paul, a granddaughter of a residential school survivor, bringing down the statue goes beyond a political move: it’s a way to rectify the wrongs and hurts colonization has caused. “Even if it seems like just a monument and it seems like we have other problems going on,” she says, “there is an oppressive force that’s solidified through the statue being kept in our city—one that would be adjusted by removing it.”

Over the years, schools, churches, and other organizations in Halifax have removed Cornwallis from their names, citing respect and solidarity with the Mi’kmaq community. Yet the Cornwallis statue remains. The struggle to remove the monument spans three decades, but it is only now making any real headway. On Tuesday, October 3, the city council voted fifteen to two to launch an eight-person special committee to advise the city on how it will commemorate Cornwallis and whether to remove the statue. Whatever the final decision of the committee, which will include four Mi’kmaq members chosen by the assembly of Mi’kmaq chiefs, the fate of the Cornwallis statute ultimately rests with the municipality’s sixteen councillors.

In the meantime, the closest Cornwallis’s monument has come to being removed happened on July 15, during a grassroots event called Removing Cornwallis. Paul was there. During the protest, the statue was covered with a black cloth. For about an hour, Cornwallis was gone from the public’s eye. More than 300 people, including those from the queer, Muslim, and Mi’kmaq communities, celebrated in peace. Drumming, singing, and dancing marked the symbolic, albeit momentary, victory, which culminated with the mayor, currently Mike Savage, admitting for the first time in the city’s history that Halifax is on unceded territory (meaning the land was never relinquished to the government by treaty or any other means—an important distinction when it comes to the legal enforcement of treaties signed with the Crown). The crowd cheered loudly.

While negotiations to remove the statue continue, such symbolic gestures have gone a long way toward helping people heal. “I talked to a man who was fifty-six years old that day Cornwallis was covered,” Paul says. She then paused before continuing, “And he said it was the best day he’d had in fifty-six years.” Barbara Low, a Mi’kmaw woman who travelled nearly three hours to make it to the demonstration, had a similar feeling. With an intoxicatingly good mood, she said that other Mi’kmaq people had travelled as far as five or six hours. And then her tone turned sombre. While the Mi’kmaq population is on the upswing again, she explained, now numbering between around 50,000 to 60,000, they had lost nearly half their population as one of the first Indigenous populations to cross paths with European colonizers. So when she sees the Cornwallis monument, she sees death.

To Low and others in the Mi’kmaq community, the removal of Cornwallis would show true intentions of reconciliation by finally setting the record straight. But it’s the kind of history that can only be learned when Indigenous voices are given the space to tell their own stories. “This was our day to show what this statue meant to us as a people,” Low says. “This was the time for the real voice of this land. And the Mi’kmaq people are the voice of this land, and it is our day to be heard.”

Some critics have argued that the actions, while symbolically important, ultimately distract from more pressing issues facing Indigenous people, such as lack of drinkable water, poverty, and addiction. Others believe that removing the names of colonizers from monuments and buildings will mean forgetting necessary lessons about our painful past. Ryan McMahon, a renowned Anishinaabe comedian and media commentator, is one of the narrators of a documentary called Colonization Road, which looks at the history behind streets named Colonization Road, or something similar, found around the country. He says that changing the names of streets and buildings will exacerbate the collective amnesia from which Canadians suffer. “If we start changing the names of these places,” he says, “we’re going to forget real fast about the history of this country.”

He acknowledges that there’s hurt associated with seeing references to colonizers prominently displayed. But he also believes they must remain in order to push people towards discussing Canada’s colonial legacy. “What’s more interesting to me is maybe not renaming Colonization Road,” he says. “But what we’re going to do with the mess on and off Colonization Road.”

University of Toronto professor Cecilia Morgan disagrees. She specializes in public memory and commemoration in Canada. This country, she says, was founded on changing the names of existing places, streets, and even people. That itself was already an act of erasing histories. To her, changing the names back to reflect their Indigenous roots or taking down monuments to colonizers would only help rectify this erasure. “People forget that history is an interpretative discipline,” she says. “We reinterpret and we go back to the past frequently and rethink the narratives that we tell, and we work with those stories and we also look at individuals or events differently over time.”

Correcting history is important not only because it validates the existence and resistance of Indigenous peoples but also because it shapes how we see ourselves and how we see others. In other words, it helps people anchor themselves in society, says Morgan. Street names and monuments have historically been used to influence those narratives, which, in turn, affect our social relations. That Indigenous peoples have been be written out of history has been a factor in the rampant racism and prejudice they experience today.

Or, as Joan Simalchick puts it, these monuments “keep the wounds bleeding.” Simalchick is a University of Toronto professor who specializes in historical trauma. The monuments make healing difficult, if not impossible, she says. “Because how can you live in a society where what was wrong is being heralded as heroic?” she asks.

Simalchik says there “absolutely” is evidence that monuments perpetuate intergenerational trauma. At best, they present a false history. At worst, they instill racist values at a societal level. “If you have a statue of someone who ordered a genocide,” Simalchick says, “what does it say for the whole society about what we value? Is that our hero?” They certainly aren’t heroes to Low and Paul and the many other Indigenous people demanding these statues be taken down. The pain is too real. The racism is tangible. The consequences are too common.

A lot of what keeps these statues up is fear: fear of admitting our history and its continuing colonial legacy. A fear driven by an ongoing and debilitating “national guilt,” as Low puts it, which manifests itself in racism, xenophobia, and violence. “Some people think that anger and jealousy are the worst human emotions,” she says. “But I think that guilt is the worst human emotion because unresolved guilt makes you vicious towards your victim.” And so, Indigenous activists aren’t holding their breath for the policy-makers to move toward reconciliation. For these activists, the road to reconciliation will not be built merely on policy and promises, nor will it be named after colonizers. It will be built on actions, and it will be led by the oppressed.

That’s why Low and Paul have vowed to continue their fight to bring Cornwallis down. Only when that happens, Paul says, will they finally begin to heal.

Fernando Arce
Fernando Arce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose work has been published in various outlets including Maclean’s, Two Row Times, This Magazine, and the London Free Press. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.