by Stephen Kimber on June 27, 2011 | 1 Comment
“Edward Cornwallis is deeply offensive to members of our Mi’kmaq communities and to Nova Scotians generally who believe school names should recognize persons whose contributions to society are unblemished by acts repugnant to the values we wish our schools to embody and represent.”
Aboriginal Halifax School Board member
The Atlantic’s latest issue boasts a history-revisiting article about Cesar Chavez, a hero of my youth. I read it last week as our school board expunged the name of Halifax’s European founder, Edward Cornwallis, from a local Junior High.
During the sixties, Chavez—an iconic, Ghandi-following, Mexican-American union leader—organized 50,000 grape pickers and lettuce harvesters to challenge California’s all-powerful farm owners.
“Si, se puede”—Yes it’s possible—became his rallying cry. Inspired by Chavez, white liberals—me too—boycotted grapes for five long years until the farm workers finally won a contract. I can still recall the sweetly satisfying taste of my first post-boycott grape.
Chavez, who died in 1993, is rightly revered. His birthday is a holiday in California and seven other states. Colleges, schools, parks, streets, even a bowling alley are named in his honour.
The Atlantic piece focuses on an “exhaustively researched, by turns sympathetic and deeply shocking” new book re-examining Chavez’s life and legacy. It claims his saintly image masked “the take-no-prisoners, balls-out tactics of a Chicago organizer.” Chavez, for example, turned over to immigration authorities undocumented workers who didn’t support his union so they would be deported. Later, he fell under the spell of a “sinister cult leader,” became “unhinged” and even mocked his own farm-worker followers. “Every time we look at them, they want more money,” he complained in one recorded conversation. “Like pigs, you know.”
So… should California cancel its holiday, rename its schools and parks?
Cesar Chavez—like Edward Cornwallis—isn’t “unblemished.”
That appears to have become the Halifax school board’s new litmus test for having a school named after you.
But no hero—no human hero—can pass that test. Not Chavez. Not Cornwallis. But also not Martin Luther King, John A. MacDonald, Nelly McClung, even “Canada’s Greatest Hero,” Tommy Douglas...
Edward Cornwallis helped establish Halifax, a noteworthy accomplishment to those of us who now call it home. But during the English-French-Mi’kmaq struggle to control the territory, Cornwallis offered a bounty for any captured or killed Mi’kmaq, “or his scalp as is the custom of America.”
The notion rightly shocks our contemporary sensibilities, but Cornwallis wasn’t alone. Nor were the English. It was a nasty time.
We should be able to honour Cornwallis for his accomplishments while acknowledging not everything he did was honour-worthy.
Which is true of most of us.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber