Our school is in a house, there's 20 students, we're pretty small. And we're in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. Last year I taught a group of grade 6-8 students, there they are, and Will was one of those students.
Our units focus around these big ideas. And one of them was, and it's written up there, so the idea that “historical context and authors’ perspectives affect readers’ interpretations of literary, historical and scientific texts and the concept of the truth.”
It's a mouthful, but in other words, the idea that the stories, or the histories, you learn depend on who is telling the story. And as a critical thinker, it is really important that you consider multiple perspectives, especially the ones that are often underrepresented or misrepresented.
This unit happened last year, 2017, Canada150. This is a really important time for us to look at our history as Canadians through a critical lens and also to take steps towards reconciliation or as Elder Commanda said this morning reconcili-action with First Nations people.
The best learning comes from taking on complex and relevant issues. So taking action on what we do in class — that's an essential part of our philosophy at The Booker School.
The culminating action component of this unit revolved around the statue that is under the shroud up there, the statue of Sir Edward Cornwallis in Halifax.
And without getting into a really lengthy discussion of history, a history lesson, Cornwallis was a governor of Nova Scotia, he was a founder of Halifax back to 1749, and he was charged with the protection of 2500 people in Halifax. But his protection policy included offering a cash bounty for Mi’kmaq scalps, which in retrospect is reprehensible.
This controversial and complex problem—it had been in the news on an almost weekly basis and there was no solution in sight.
As their teacher, I didn’t have the answers, I didn't have the solution, I don't know the best way forward, so I put it to my students. And they met this challenge head on with maturity and thoughtfulness.
So there is an article that we read in The Canadian Encyclopedia by Ken McGoogan and he said, “With any statue that causes offence, we have three options. We can rebut the complaint" So can you justify keeping him up there on the pedestal, in the case of Cornwallis? And if you can't, well then "remove it."
Or, and this is where it gets interesting and creativity comes to play, can you "change the meaning with an addition."
And this framed the debate for my students. To decide on what should happen to the Cornwallis statue, the class formed a mock committee to mirror the committee in Halifax.
After researching the controversial figure of Sir Edward Cornwallis and the historical context in which he lived during 1700s and when the statue was commissioned in 1931, each student shared their own proposals.
These included keeping the statue as is, adding a plaque representing multiple perspectives on his legacy, sending the statue to England, melting the statue down, and adding other statues to change the meaning.
We had to consider how the meaning of the statue could be changed to promote: reconciliation; an open and respectful dialogue; an understanding of history from multiple perspectives; and critical thinking.
Following a debate, the class had come to a consensus on what to propose to The Special Advisory Committee on the Commemoration of Sir Edward Cornwallis and the Recognition and Commemoration of Indigenous History.
After several rounds of discussions, votes and compromise, we arrived at a consensus and drafted a letter detailing the proposal as follows: Instead of removing Cornwallis entirely, keep him standing. Although a dark history, it is not one we should simply shove under a rock and try to make disappear. We can’t move forward as a society if we don’t learn and evolve from past mistakes.
Instead, Cornwallis’ pedestal should be removed, so he is at the same level as everyone else and doesn’t appear to be glorified in any way.
So Will had prepared an animation that we tried to insert into here, so we will try to put it on the school's Instagram site and Facebook site if you want to see that.
The next step would be to create “a conversation” by adding additional statues of equivalent height and stature. All the statues would be facing each other as though talking to each other, and a visitor would have the ability to step inside the circle, thus becoming part of the conversation.
These additional statues would represent the diversity of Nova Scotia’s history by including Mi’kmaq, African Canadian, and Acadian contributors. Through research, the students came up with these three suggestions for consideration.
The first addition to this conversation could be Grand Chief John Denny Jr., the last hereditary grand Mi’kmaq Chief, who served for over fifty years.
It is said that he always put his people's interest in high regard when making decisions, and always led with great attention to detail and respect for the traditions of the Mi’kmaq people.
So there is a painting here that was recently commissioned by the Grand Chief's descendants and this is by renowned Mi’kmaq artist Alan Syliboy.
Next, the person representing African Nova Scotians, another founding community of Nova Scotia, could be Viola Desmond. Viola Desmond was responsible for exposing racial inequality in Canada.
On November 8th, 1946, she made a stand against segregation when she was told to sit in the balcony of a movie theatre, instead of on the main floor reserved for whites only. She sat in the whites-only area and was arrested, fined and jailed for the “crime”.
This event sparked the Civil Rights Movement in Canada and you will probably be familiar with her story because it is on the latest $10 bill.
And the third statue could be of Noël Doiron, his wife Marie, and a daughter. Born in Port Royal, Noël was described as the "Father of the Acadians" who were removed during the Expulsion by the British.
In 1758, his family was expelled for a second time from Île St-Jean, which would be now PEI, expelled to France onboard the ship, the Duke William. Their vessel was separated from the fleet during a storm and began taking on water.
For days, everyone bailed and pumped. But on December 13, just 20 leagues from land, the Captain recognized it was hopeless. It was Noël Doiron who encouraged the crew, captain and priest to use the few lifeboats to save themselves.
Hours later, the 360 Acadians onboard the Duke William perished. It’s thought that 120 were Noël and Marie Doiron’s immediate family, including their five children and spouses, their siblings and spouses, and over 30 of their grandchildren.
We sent the proposal to the — well, the committee hadn't been formed yet, so we sent it to Halifax City Council and we sent it to the press. And that was right before Christmas, and we thought that might be the end of it.
But we came back in January of last year, and that first day there was a reporter, a newspaper reporter on our doorstep—she couldn't wait to get an interview with the kids. So just jumping right into all of that.
The whole January and February of last year, it seemed like every week there were new reporters coming like local and provincial newspapers came by, Macleans magazine came and did a phone interview, CBC and other radio stations wanted to interview the students, and we even had a camera crew from CTV in the school.
The students’ proposal captured the attention of the public. So many people got in touch with us, they would just stop by the school randomly in the community, they wanted to hear the students' ideas and wanted to give their feedback on the proposal.
I’ll share with you some of the feedback we received by email and social media. You’ll notice from the wide variety of the population represented here, it's people who often find themselves on opposing sides of this debate.
So from Wyatt White, former Advisor for Indigenous Community Engagement in Halifax Regional Municipality: “Welal’iloq for sharing. What a fantastic project. The collaboration and dialogue on the recommendation is what I’m striving for.”
From Lisa Tondino, an architect from Houdini Design: “These types of conversations can really divide people and it is great how this dialogue brings people together... Youth bring a new point of view to the dialogue which can be quite divided and aggressive with adults.”
From Betty Julian, an art curator and Nova Scotian of African and Mi’kmaq descent: “I am impressed by the students...Consensus and a very informed and critically attuned resolution and proposal by the students.”
From Len Canfield, member of the Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society: “As one with a long-time interest in history and education I was impressed with the proposal presented by your students particularly their ability to research/discuss a controversial historic issue (Cornwallis) and willingness to engage the community.”
And from Waye Mason, Deputy Mayor and Councillor for Halifax South Downtown: “Please pass on to the amazing students and teacher of your grade 6-8 class how impressed I am with the work they did on the Cornwallis park and statue question. As the area councillor my hope was to see this discussion lead to these types of debates and proposals. Your students are a model to us all.”
And other community members got in touch with us, including Brad Hall and Elizabeth Sircom, sculptors who have done historical and commemorative work. Both artists came to our class to share their points of view on the proposal and give us insight into the artistic process involved in interpreting historic figures through various materials.
A local high school teacher, who teaches Mi’kmaq Studies to grade 11s, she invited us to do an interactive presentation for her class, which was a Mi’kmaq studies class.
I think the most meaningful outcome of this project was our meeting with Deputy Mayor of Halifax Waye Mason, Councillor for District 7, where the statue was. He came all the way from the city to spend the afternoon discussing our ideas and giving us some of the history around the statue, the park and the politics behind the scenes.
The students have been surprised and empowered to see that their ideas are actually a part of this conversation and that many people are listening to their ideas.
This is a picture of us on the platform where the statue used to be in Halifax, sort of with our positions representing what "The Conversation" might look like. I always refer to my students’ reflections on their experiences to see if I have achieved my goals as a teacher.
We’ll end the presentation with some of Will’s thoughts on the experience and you can judge or decide for yourselves whether or not the students have become empowered and empathetic citizens.
Researching and developing this proposal was an eye-opening experience for me and my classmates. The response to it has been surprising.
Usually it’s the victors of battles or people of rank who get to write the history books. But there are many stories that have been erased, forgotten, or only spoken about briefly.
What our Cornwallis Statue Proposal says is that there are many histories and they’re each valid and should be remembered and considered in the ongoing conversation.
Each of us are a part of history. Thank you.
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