Settlers: Victims or Villains?

Director’s note: Last week, this article published in the National Post made the rounds on social media. Some of us were dismayed by its arguments; a few found them appealing. My colleague and New Testament scholar Dr. Danny Zacharias wrote a response on Facebook. He gave his permission to reproduce it here as a guest blog. You can read an earlier and related MacRae Centre post on the issue of the Cornwallis statue here. Anyone interested in the history of Cornwallis in Mi’kma’ki should read We Were Not the Savages by Daniel Paul.

After seeing this article shared a few times on Facebook, and seeing that it is in the NationalPost, I wasn’t sure how to respond. But now that I’ve read it and calmed down, here is my take. I’m amazed at how eloquently someone was able to defend Cornwallis and sound so reasonable in doing so – it goes to show how powerfully persuasive writing can be. But in truth, it is quite appalling. This article is the equivalent of victim shaming in a sexual assault trial.
Here is what is so amazing about this article. It admits within it the well-documented payment for Indian-scalps that Cornwallis enacted. (Human Culling. HE CALLED FOR THE CULLING OF HUMAN BEINGS. Do you really want to defend a statue of a man like this?) It also ends with the historical reality that Cornwallis and the British won the victory through a huge force of arms and deported the Acadians. Yet somehow, the author almost manages to convince us that Cornwallis is the VICTIM — that guy who won the battle and occupied the land for the British, and deported the Acadians. That poor victim, he lost to the Mi’kmaw again, and it is the simple turning of public opinion today that has painted him as the bad guy.
So let’s make sure we have a few things straight, both in the present time and in past history. First, it is the Mi’kmaw leadership itself that asked for the statue not just to be removed, but to be preserved in a museum. It is this same leadership that spoke against the mob’s wishes to tear it down. They followed procedure. And yet this article’s author still seeks to paint them as the savage, defeating Cornwallis once again.
On to the history. The article does a good job to show the dynamics between the European, the French, and the Mi’kmaw – we should not caricature or simplify history, as it is always complex. Yet, conveniently lacking is the fact that HALIFAX WAS ALREADY MI’KMAW TERRITORY, WITH SETTLEMENTS! The narrative today, exemplified in this article, is that the British and French and Mi’kmaw were all jockeying together to settle some newly found land. No, the Mi’kmaw had settlements in the Halifax area already. And French settlements arose because historically the French often had better relations with the indigenous population. But it was the British who erected a walled city to declare the land for Britain, following the Doctrine of Discovery. And, just like you and I would today, the Mi’kmaw fought to reclaim their land with their closest ally.
We are still as a country in the midst of truth and reconciliation. Truth first. We should not brush lightly over facts like this article does, and lightly pass by the call to cull human beings, or simply disregard the fact that the land was occupied. Indigenous people are not asking Nova Scotians to forget Cornwallis. Their connection to land makes it hard to forget him. While we all sit cozy, they still live with the effects of displacement and dispossession. They are simply asking that in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, we not celebrate and memorialize him in our shared public spaces. Why is this so difficult?
What motivates us to argue and complain in defense of a statue that most of us rarely ever see? Perhaps, just perhaps, it is because we are being asked to reconsider some assumptions that we have held a long time. The uncomfortable truth that we live in a colonized country. That we/our parents/our grandparents sat idly by, perhaps even in approval, as children were ripped from their homes (doubly shameful for Christians and especially Baptists with a strong polity of separation of church and state). That land we are living on or grew up on may have actually been stolen from people that were found to be inconvenient. To recognize that much of what makes our country great was at the terrible expense of others, with terrible conditions still persisting for some of those same people.
But the truth also sets us free. Free to respond in a good way. Free to confess corporately. To repent to our Creator on behalf of our ancestors and ourselves. And free to seek understanding, seek justice on behalf of those still systemically oppressed in our country, and free to reach out and seek peace and friendship. None of these good decisions that seek justice, peace, and relationship — the very things that beat deep in the heart of God — will be brought forth when we try to revise history, defend human scalpers, and spend more time thinking about a monument than on issues that are affecting the lives of indigenous children today.

Danny Zacharias, PhD



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