HALIFAX — The mayor of Halifax says a municipal process to rethink how the city honours its controversial founder may not go ahead as planned after the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs withdrew.
Mike Savage said councillors are evaluating their options after the municipality's efforts to revisit tributes to Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis were derailed on Friday when the assembly announced it was pulling its participation.
"We have to determine if the process goes ahead or not, and that's a discussion that council will have to have," said Savage. "It was always going to be hard work, and I still think the process is one that has integrity, but if it's not going to happen, then we'll have to adjust."
The assembly has called for a statue of Cornwallis to be immediately removed from a downtown park, saying its members have run out of patience with a process that has dragged on for "far too long."
The mayor said the assembly's decision came as a surprise to councillors, but the Mi'kmaq chiefs are not alone in their frustration with the slow pace of progress.
"I think we're all disappointed that the process has taken as long as it has, but it's a very new thing for us on council. We've never done something like this before," he said. "I don't want to point fingers as to who's to blame for how long it took, because I just don't think it's helpful to look back. I'd rather look forward."
Halifax councillors voted last fall to launch a special advisory committee that would provide council with advice on what to do with Cornwallis commemorations, as well as make recommendations for honouring Indigenous history.
Savage pointed to the vote as evidence that council has seen movement on the Cornwallis issue since a similar motion, which would have had experts weigh in on the matter, was narrowly defeated in 2016.
The committee was to be made up of eight community members, four of whom would be based on nominations put forward by the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs. The assembly said it submitted names of potential Mi'kmaq panellists, but the committee has yet to be formed.
The assembly passed a resolution last week calling on the city to deal with landmarks honouring Cornwallis, including the bronze statue that has become a flashpoint for controversy over the former Nova Scotia governor's legacy.
Last summer, amid simmering tensions over Cornwallis — who issued a bounty on Mi'kmaq scalps in response to an attack on colonists — members of the assembly tried to quell a grassroots protest calling for the statue's removal.
The assembly's stance was cited by Savage when he spoke out against the apparent threat to public property ahead of the event, which he later attended as the city temporarily covered the bronze figure in tarp.
Organizers have planned another "Removing Cornwallis" rally next weekend, which Mi'kmaq activist Rebecca Moore said was partly inspired by the assembly's recent call for action.
"I think that for once we're seeing the grassroots people and the Nova Scotia chiefs agree on something, and I would say it's about time," said Moore. "Now, more than ever, we're seeing that Mi'kmaq nation as a whole does not want that statue present."
Moore said council's inertia on the issue is a product of a colonial system that Cornwallis helped found, which means the solution must be led by the Mi'kmaq community — but the municipality should supply the bulldozers.
"I would say that Cornwallis's days are numbered," she said. "Our nation is united on Cornwallis's removal from unceded Mi'kmaq territory. If (Savage and regional council) don't listen to our demand on our own soil, that is the definition of white supremacy."
Savage said he did not know if the assembly's withdrawal from the municipal process would further stall the city's efforts to re-examine landmarks honouring Cornwallis, but said councillors are working to find a "speedy" resolution.
Their decision is bound to invite controversy, Savage acknowledged, as the city becomes further embroiled in a debate over competing narratives about Cornwallis's role in Halifax history.
For some, Cornwallis is a brave leader who founded Halifax with his entourage of soldiers and settlers trying to survive in a new world.
But others see him as the commander of a bloody and barbaric extermination campaign against Mi'kmaq inhabitants, exemplified in the 1749 scalping proclamation.
"I think any time we have a discussion that matters deeply to people, these things need to be in the public square," Savage said.
"What I want to see is some kind of a process that leads to a greater understanding of why these things matter. You know, that may be somewhat naive to think that that can happen, but I believe in the power of government to do good work."