Mi’kmaq leaders voice concerns about protest

HALIFAX — Organizers say a weekend protest calling for a statue of Halifax’s controversial founder to be toppled will proceed as planned, despite objections from some Mi’kmaq leaders.

A Facebook event called “Removing Cornwallis” invites protesters to remove a large bronze statue of former governor Edward Cornwallis from atop a stone pedestal on Saturday.

Organizers haven’t said how they will do that, but the event has reignited debate about how Halifax commemorates its colonial history, as well as how the province’s Mi’kmaq community affirms its past.

Cornwallis, as governor of Nova Scotia, founded Halifax in 1749 and soon after issued a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists. The Mi’kmaq have long called for removal of tributes to Cornwallis, some calling his actions a form of genocide.

Members of the Nova Scotia Assembly of Mi’kmaq Chiefs agree that the statue should come down. However, they say protesters should use civic engagement, rather than force, to accomplish their goal.

“There is a process to engage with one another, and while this may take time, it does not mean that work is not being done,” Chief Deborah Robinson, lead chief of Urban Mi’kmaq for the assembly, said in a statement. “While we respect the right to protest, we also want people to know that our primary concern is for the safety of our people.”

The assembly’s stance was cited by Mayor Mike Savage when he spoke out against the apparent threat to public property on Tuesday.

Savage said the city will not stand in the way of “legitimate public protest,” but he also said officials will not “condone violent action in the place of real dialogue.”

Protest organizer Suzanne Patles took issue with the mayor’s characterization of the event, accusing Savage of sowing division within the Mi’kmaq community.

“We’re not going against our own people. We’re going by the directions of our elders,” Patles said in an interview. “We want these issues to be brought forward as valid and not to be dismissed as something violent and from the left field.”

Patles said Saturday’s event will feature a ceremonial component, but she declined to comment on plans to topple the statue.

She said if the city does not commit to removing the statue by Aug. 7 — the city’s birthday and a civic holiday — then the statue “will have a way of coming down.”

Patles said there is renewed urgency to do something as Cornwallis has emerged as a symbol of prejudice.

On Canada Day, a group of off-duty Canadian military men disrupted a spiritual event at the statue marking the suffering of Indigenous Peoples.

The men, who are now facing a military investigation and possible expulsion from the Forces, said they were members of the Proud Boys, a self-declared group of “Western Chauvinists” who say they are tired of apologizing for “creating the modern world.”

“There’s probably a more urgent need to deal with this,” said Shawn Cleary, a city councillor. “That in particular provided a sort of a trigger or an impetus to move this now.”

Cleary introduced a motion in April asking council to examine the use of Cornwallis’s name on municipal property. Councillors voted 15-1 in favour of the motion, and an expert panel, which includes Mi’kmaq voices, is being convened to weigh on the municipal landmarks.

“I’m hoping cooler heads prevail by Saturday,” said Cleary. “I understand why they (the Mi’kmaq community) wouldn’t trust us, but I would ask them to engage in the official process that’s happening now.”

Halifax’s Mi’kmaq poet laureate, Rebecca Thomas, whose performance about Cornwallis in April helped spur debate at City Hall, said she is of two minds about Saturday’s protest.

“As much we would love to go up there and pull that statue down, to make meaningful change, we have to hustle and play the system that exists,” Thomas said in an interview. “My feelings and my heart are with those protesters, but so is my anxiety and my worry about fallout from the general public.”

Indigenous political activity is often perceived as an aggression, she said, and if a peaceful ceremony near the statue can provoke a confrontation with the Proud Boys, she said she fears that an effort to topple the statue may imperil protesters’ safety.

More than 350 people have indicated on Facebook they plan to attend the protest.

A spokesperson for the Halifax police said they will be monitoring the event.

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