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Port Williams students propose creative solution for Halifax Cornwallis statue

Booker School teacher Temma Frecker is feeling proud of her students after seeing them reach a consensus on an insightful and clear solution to the controversial Cornwallis statue. “I was convinced… it had to go, but hearing their thoughtful ideas changed that,” she said.
Booker School teacher Temma Frecker is feeling proud of her students after seeing them reach a consensus on an insightful and clear solution to the controversial Cornwallis statue. “I was convinced… it had to go, but hearing their thoughtful ideas changed that,” she said. - Sara Ericsson

‘Cornwallis was an important person that did really controversial things, but we can’t forget:’ Mercer

PORT WILLIAMS, NS – A group of students in Port Williams has a unique solution to making Halifax’s divisive Cornwallis statue an inclusive space for all Nova Scotians.

The grade six to eight class at Booker School in Port Williams is proposing to remove the statue’s pedestal and place it on ground level among three new statues of other figures who’ve contributed to Nova Scotia’s history.

The figures proposed are Viola Desmond, Grand Chief John Denny Jr. and Noël Doiron, who would stand in a circle with Cornwallis so people who visit the statue can stand within the circle, and be part of the conversation.

“We want everyone to feel like they’re a part of this, but none of us wanted the statue gone. Cornwallis was an important person that did really controversial things, but we can’t forget,” said grade eight student Will Mercer.

 

Reaching a consensus

Seven students in grades six to eight at Booker School in Port Williams examined the history of Sir Edward Cornwallis, known for founding Halifax and a bounty on Mi’kmaq scalps, within a wider historical context and collaborated to find a solution on what to do with his statue, which sits in a downtown Halifax park.

The Sir Edward Cornwallis statue, which currently stands atop a pedestal in a downtown Halifax park. photo by The Guardian.
The Sir Edward Cornwallis statue, which currently stands atop a pedestal in a downtown Halifax park. photo by The Guardian.

The students reached a consensus through several rounds of presentations – where each student presented their position in a paper – followed by discussions and votes.

Mercer, who was inspired after conversations with his parents about the statue left him feeling sure a solution for the problematic statue could be found, originally proposed the idea for four statues on the ground in circle.

“We talked about how bringing the statue down to ground level would make it so he’s not standing above, looking down at people anymore,” said Mercer.

“By bringing him down and putting him with other people, he’s not being glorified.”

The students then collectively wrote and submitted a proposal detailing this solution to the Special Advisory Committee on the Commemoration of Sir Edward Cornwallis and the Recognition and Commemoration of Indigenous History, calling for Halifax to participate in “this …conversation that needs to be had.”

“We agreed each group – African Nova Scotians, Mi’kmaq and Acadians – should all be commemorated, along with what they’ve done for Canada as a nation,” said grade eight student Forrest Robinson.

 

An open-minded approach

Booker School teacher Temma Frecker said looking into the controversy surrounded the Cornwallis statue was part of a six-week unit of inquiry, during which students explored how historical perspectives can change and impact societies, and how morals and ethics change over time.

Students say their open discussion format and being open to different arguments led them to their creative solution.

Grade six student Hana Hutchinson said the students want “each statue to bear a plaque recognizing their positive and negative contributions,” to show how complex Nova Scotia’s history is.

The students feel the public and lawmakers could all benefit from their approach – listening to all sides and not assuming the statue has to stay as is or be torn down – in reaching a solution.

From left: Henry Mulherin, grade seven, Forrest Robinson, grade eight, Will Mercer, grade eight and Hana Hutchinson, grade six. Absent from the photo: Abby Welton, grade seven, Evan Moser, grade six and Colin Stephens, grade six.
From left: Henry Mulherin, grade seven, Forrest Robinson, grade eight, Will Mercer, grade eight and Hana Hutchinson, grade six. Absent from the photo: Abby Welton, grade seven, Evan Moser, grade six and Colin Stephens, grade six.

“Keeping the statue up will allow people to remember everything that happened. Removing it erases that,” said grade seven student Henry Mulherin.

Frecker said she felt so proud of her students and the unique perspectives they brought to the table, which she said caused her to rethink even her own opinion on the statue.

“When I first heard about the Cornwallis conversation, my initial gut reaction was it had to go. But after hearing the thoughtful ideas these guys brought forward, it changed,” she said.

“If the statue goes, the conversation goes.”

 

An inquiry-based approach to learning

The students reflected on learning that the history surrounding residential schools in Canada and the assimilation of Indigenous people was once shrouded from view, and said they feel glad their school doesn’t try to shroud them.

“Why weren’t they taught these things? People know about what happened now. You have to remember the bad things, so you can learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again,” said Robinson.

Hutchinson said she feels lucky to attend a school where talking about these things is a priority.

“There was probably a time when people weren’t allowed to talk about these things, when your opinion didn’t matter,” she said.

The students are feeling good as their proposal is making rounds, and drawing feedback from various adults expressing their amazement that a group of students aged 11 to 13 could achieve such a clear vision of how to bring inclusivity to Cornwallis.

“I feel like we’ve accomplished something – most students wouldn’t even be talking about this at our age,” said Robinson.

Mercer agreed, and hopes his idea and the group’s shared proposal is considered.

“Doing something about this, and not just watching it happen, feels really good. I hope others consider doing the same,” he said.

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