Courting controversy

John TattrieAn author’s perspective on the public reaction to a hot-button historical subject

The first time I wrote about Edward Cornwallis, it was for a front-page article in the Chronicle Herald in 2010. A company selling hair-care products in Halifax had run an ad for “real human hair extensions” featuring models posed with a statue of Cornwallis in a downtown park. Given the city founder’s notorious role in ordering a scalping bounty against Mi’kmaq people, it led to a hot debate about history, racism and colonialism.

People emailed me, called my home and wrote letters to the editor. The conversation went national when the Halifax Regional School Board ordered Cornwallis Junior High to drop the English aristocrat’s name; it was eventually renamed Halifax Central Junior High.

I wanted to know more about him. To my amazement, I found that not a single book had been written about him—in fact, he barely earned a few mentions in Thomas Raddall’s Halifax: Warden of the North. If I wanted to read Cornwallis’s biography, I’d have to write it.

I spent two years digging through the archives and history books. My search led me to experts in Canada, Gibraltar, Scocornwallis statue halifaxtland and England.

The result, Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax (Pottersfield Press), came out in May. Normally, authors have to beg for media coverage of books. But Cornwallis was a force of nature: on launch day, I gave interviews from 6 am to 6 pm. The launch was standing-room only, attended by more than 130 people, and I had to field increasingly hostile questions. Was I defending a genocidal butcher? Was I trying to rewrite history in the name of political correctness? The moderator had to cut people off as emotions threatened to boil over.

A week later, I spoke to Dalhousie’s University Club. At the end of my talk, a prominent historian accused me of fudging the research to bend the book to pre-held opinions. Another week later, someone sprayed graffiti on the statue declaring Cornwallis to be “fake” and a “self-righteous ass.”

I was back for another full media blitz.

“Stepping onto the contemporary battlefield, surrounded on all sides by belligerents with bayonets fixed, the author produces a peace offering,” wrote the Herald’s book reviewer.

That’s exactly what it felt like. I asked myself: Why am I doing this? I have a lovely wife and a baby son at home. I’m a full-time writer, but books make up a tiny proportion of my income. I’m not in it for the money. I love writing, but don’t enjoy facing hostile audiences. So why?

The truth is, I wrote CornwCornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax - Pottersfield Pressallis not in spite of the controversy, but because of it. It was like that scene in Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers where Roberta Anderson stumbles on a metal object poking out of the ground. She scrapes away the dirt to reveal an ancient alien spaceship. The “real human hair extensions” was the pokey metal; this book is the spaceship.

Now that the truth about Cornwallis has been exhumed, it’s my hope that we can have a thoughtful post-mortem discussion about history and contemporary identity. Now that we know how Halifax began, we can better map out where we want the city to go.

Nova Scotia has given me a lot. This book is my way of giving a little bit back.

Read a review of Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax.

Written By

Kim Hart Macneill is a journalist and magazine editor whose work has appeared in This Magazine, Canadian Business, and East Coast Living. She divides her time between Halifax and Moncton.

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