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Historian's Mi'kmaq genocide claim challenged

09/14/2011 05:31 EDT | Updated 11/14/2011 05:12 EST

A Halifax historian's claim that Nova Scotia was the scene of genocide is being challenged after it appeared in an academic journal.

Daniel Paul, a Mi'kmaq elder, says British actions against his people amount to genocide. He points to the extermination campaign and notorious scalping proclamation of the 1700s.

"They were guilty of genocide. It was unacceptable, even at that point in time and I don't care who says otherwise," Paul said Wednesday. "[It was] definitely not a civilized thing to do to try to exterminate a race of people. "

Paul's argument is published in the September edition of a new journal called Settler Colonial Studies.

"Hopefully it's being discussed around the world in history departments and other departments in universities and other education facilities," he said.

Ethnic cleansing in the 1700s?

But not all academics agree the British actions were genocide.

John Reid teaches history at Saint Mary's University. He encouraged Paul in his work, but questions his use of the word genocide.

"I personally am reluctant to use terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing to apply to the 18th century in the sense that to me, they have very particular meanings that are closely tied to more recent times, in particular to the second half of the 20th century," he said.

Paul, the author of We Were Not The Savages, is predicting criticism and backlash against his work.

"Most of these objections come from Caucasians, probably of British ancestry. It's understandable they try to minimize the horrors their ancestors committed," he said.

But Paul said the horrors his people suffered need to be discussed and that even the debate about language shines a light on a dark chapter of Nova Scotia history.

"When Europeans began to invade this area 400 years ago, there was a vibrant, well-established Mi'kmaq civilization here," he said. "Invasion was instrumental in causing the near demise of the Mi'kmaq and the destruction of our civilization."

Cornwallis's scalping proclamation

To back up his claim of genocide, he points to the specific calls by early Nova Scotians like Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis to exterminate the Mi'kmaq.

In his 1749 proclamation, Cornwallis offered state money for the scalps of Mi'kmaq men, women and children.

Paul said targeting not just warriors, but all Mi'kmaq, push the actions into genocide or ethnic cleansing.

"I guess that must be genocide when he stated that his goal was to eliminate the Mi'kmaq and offered a bounty," Paul said. "I don't know how you would otherwise phrase it."

Paul played a key role in having a Halifax school drop "Cornwallis" from its name.

Actions like the scalping proclamation and the sometimes deliberate spread of disease, malnutrition and loss of territory saw the Mi'kmaq population drop from an estimated 200,000 before Europeans arrived to 1,500 in the 1800s, Paul said.

Many people thought the Mi'kmaq, like Newfoundland's Beothuk, would die out altogether, but the population began to rebound in the 1900s and is about 25,000 today.

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