NEWS
01/10/2018 11:25 EST | Updated 01/12/2018 09:04 EST

Mi'kmaq activist's announcement at former Cornwallis school heavy with symbolism

HALIFAX — When Rebecca Moore walked through the hallways as a teenage student at Cornwallis Junior High, she was inundated with reminders of the man she sees as an oppressor of her Mi'kmaq ancestors: His name was emblazoned on sweatshirts, trophies and the building's entrance.

Moore, a 27-year-old Mi'kmaq activist, returned to those same halls on Wednesday to deliver the inaugural acknowledgment that the Halifax school once named for controversial city founder Edward Cornwallis sits on her people's ancestral land.

"Good morning, students," Moore said over the speaker system. "It is my great honour to be the first to welcome you all formally to Mi'kmaq territory. The unceded traditional territory of the Mi'kmaq people."

It is important to take note of the word "unceded," she told the student body: "It means never conquered. Never surrendered."

Moore was hand-picked to kick off daily recognition of Mi'kmaq land at her alma matter, which was renamed Halifax Central Junior High in 2011.

As she waded through the throngs of students huddled at their blue lockers, Moore said she felt a touch of nostalgia for the days when being featured on the morning announcements was a notable distinction. And she said she felt healing from the trauma of being educated under the banner of a British general she believes committed genocide against her Mi'kmaq ancestors.

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.

"It felt like I was still experiencing genocide even in my own junior high school," she told reporters. "This really is significantly good medicine for my healing and for my journey in reconciliation, and I definitely do feel reconciled with by this (junior) high school."

The Halifax Regional School Board voted in June 2017 for all schools to start the day with an acknowledgment of Mi'kmaq territory.

Principal Robert MacMillan said Halifax Central was supposed to follow other schools in adopting the practice last October, but it was delayed due to scheduling issues because he wanted Moore to introduce the students to what it means to live on Mi'kmaq land.

"Our hope is the more we get the message out there ... the more they will appreciate our history and understand what has happened to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada," MacMillan told reporters.

"By bringing her in, and letting her be the one to kick off this new tradition, I think gives more meaning, not just to the process, but also to the students who are able to put a face to someone who has had to endure."

Moore stressed the importance of teaching students that Mi'kmaq territory is "unceded," a word that's not included in the school board's recommended script for land acknowledgments. MacMillan said he hopes to raise the issue with school board officials, and plans to use the word in Halifax Central's daily acknowledgment.

Moore said she and her family were the only Mi'kmaq students when they attended the school in the early 2000s, and seeing Cornwallis's name plastered all over the classrooms felt like an ongoing psychological "assault," which she feels contributed to what she described as her youthful rebelliousness.

Since then, she said, the school has made a 180-degree turn in confronting Cornwallis's legacy head-on, and she encouraged Halifax Regional Council, which is currently revisiting several municipal tributes to Cornwallis, to follow its example.

Moore continues to have run-ins with Cornwallis, whether it be visiting the Mi'kmaw Native Friendship Centre just off Cornwallis Street in Halifax's north end, or during an Indigenous protest she helped organize last July near a statue of Cornwallis that was disrupted by off-duty members of the military calling themselves "Proud Boys."

"If that Cornwallis statue hadn't have been there, it would not have been the flashpoint for that racial tension to occur," she said. "That statue is actually a safety risk to us and our people, and that's why it needs to come down."

Canada still has a lot of work to do in reckoning with its past, said Moore, but it is important to recognize the steps people have taken.

"This is the true spirit of peace and friendship, and reconciliation," she said, "It's a great education opportunity, and that's what this is really about."