Heroes and blemishes: Edward Cornwallis and Cesar Chavez

“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.”

Kirk Arsenault
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.

  1. Thoughts of past wrongs wrt the white man’s treatments of the North American Indians are sad in all respects, it can be also stated history has many sad tales of all those of have held power and superiority over others. To-day if elected persons are confronted with a motion and or proposal to change any past public award of achievement that has been bestowed upon an individual(s) they are bound after due consideration to once again past judgment. The fact remains that the renaming of one Halifax Junior High School is not about to change or rewrite history, nor tarnish the name of Edward Cornwallis any more than has already has been done. Those who are truly interested in the history of Halifax will read all that has been documented and judge for themselves. For those who want to learn more about First Nations History read “We Were Not the Savages” by Daniel N. Paul.


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