“Was my school named after a slaveowner?” A closer look at the place names around us

A few weeks ago, Halifax journalist Tim Bousquet wrote a brief piece about the history of slavery in Nova Scotia. Bousquet pointed to an article by University of Vermont history professor Harvey Amani Whitfield which contends that slavery was further widespread here than official statistics suggest:

Whitfield shows that slavery was widespread, found in every part of Nova Scotia, and that sales of slaves, including children, and notices of runaway slaves were regular features in local newspapers.

Whitfield gives only a preliminary sketch of the extent of slavery, and says while more work is needed, the total number of Nova Scotian slaves will never be known. But Whitfield thinks that historian James Walker’s figure of 1,232 Nova Scotian slaves is far too low.”

Whitfield’s article featured pictures of old newspaper ads announcing rewards for escaped Africans, like this one:

Photo via http://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Slavery-in-English-NS-1750-1810-.pdfThere are similar images on display at the Africville Museum in the North End of Halifax. This one is from 1794:

Photo: Nova Scotia Archives
Photo: Nova Scotia Archives

Last fall, while on a field trip there with my grade 11 class, a museum guide stood by this image and explained to the class the history of slavery in this province. A student then pointed to the name on the bottom of the ad and asked “is that the same Michael Wallace who my elementary school was named after?”

Wallace, it turns out, was a Scottish-born businessman and politician who came to Halifax in 1779 and is best known for spearheading the construction of the Shubenacadie Canal.

Google results on Wallace don’t mention slavery, however, but David Sutherland, a Dalhousie history professor who wrote Wallace’s entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, said the Michael Wallace he’d written about was most likely the same person named on the poster at the Africville museum:

“[I]t’s not surprising [that Wallace owned slaves] given his many-faceted involvement in business. Of particular interest is the fact that Wallace was hiring out his slaves (assuming he had more than one) to work for others… 

Wallace…was a highly controversial figure. But the fact that he owned  
slaves in the 1790s was not one of the reasons why he was unpopular  
among most of his contemporaries.”

In 2011, the Halifax Regional School Board’s decided to re-name Cornwallis junior high school, based on that British colonial general’s treatment of the Mi’kmaq people. While the board’s decision in that case was unanimous, the public’s reaction to it was decidedly not. Outraged commentary appeared on letters pages, in op-eds and on call-in shows claiming the decision was political correctness gone amok.

Statue of Edward Cornwallis, Halifax. Photo by HantsHeroes (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACornwallisStatueHalifaxNovaScotia.jpg)
Statue of Edward Cornwallis, Halifax. Photo by HantsHeroes. Source.

One of their arguments, common in this type of debate, goes something like this: No historical figure was perfect. We can’t start re-naming everything that might offend someone. Where would it stop?

It’s true that an effort to acknowledge historical wrongs could involve an awful lot of re-naming. The town of Amherst, Nova Scotia, for example, is named for Jeffery Amherst, a British Commander-in-Chief who advocated for the distribution of smallpox-infested blankets to Indigenous people. General Robert Monckton, namesake of New Brunswick’s largest city, is known for his leading role in the deportation of the Acadians. The Earl of Dalhousie, namesake of the university, tried (and mostly failed) to rid Nova Scotia of the Black Refugees who had come here seeking freedom following the War of 1812. Re-naming things named after figures with skeletons in their closets would certainly require a lot of work.

Dalhousie University, Halifax. Photo by mricon (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenri_Hicks_Building%2C_Dalhousie_University.jpg)
Dalhousie University, Halifax. Source.

But so what? Re-naming everything is exactly what British (and French) colonists did as they forcibly took over this land and extracted its wealth for the benefit of their empires, at the expense of its original inhabitants and enslaved peoples, laying the foundation for inequalities that persist today. Are these colonists’ legacies worth honouring by putting their names on public monuments? All levels of government have talked in recent years of reconciliation and new partnerships; no one ever said those things were easy.

Some say re-naming public works would be akin to re-writing history. But calls to maintain the supposed integrity of history are most often about maintaining the status quo – history taught from the perspective of the winners. When history is inconvenient to us; when instead of glorifying our ancestors it forces us to grapple with the effects of past wrongs – lower standards of living, based on many socioeconomic indicators, for Aboriginal people and African Canadians – we try to ignore it and tell people to “get over the past.”

Black Loyalists leave Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone, 1792. (Photo: Nova Scotia Department of Education (http://lrt.ednet.ns.ca/PD/bea/slidegif/notes.shtml)
Black Loyalists leave Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone, 1792. Source.

Granted, some legacies are complicated. According to historian David Sutherland, Michael Wallace was, in addition to being an owner of enslaved Africans, the agent responsible for coordinating passage overseas for the nearly 1200 Black Loyalists fleeing the racism and general hardship of Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone in 1792.  At the time, the exodus to Sierra Leone was opposed by most local white elites, who enjoyed the pool of cheap, easily exploitable labour the Black Loyalists provided. “That’s a story your students should know about,” Sutherland said.

The names we use on public works to decide which figures in our history are worthy of honour tells us much about our values. Although some stories (like, for example, that of Burton Ettinger School in Fairview, named for a late school custodian reportedly beloved by all) are not as complicated as that of Michael Wallace, we shouldn’t be afraid to take a good look at those that are.

2 thoughts on ““Was my school named after a slaveowner?” A closer look at the place names around us”

  1. I wonder how fairly this approach would be applied. Would “greatest Canadian” and notorious homophobe Tommy Douglas be axed? What about famous fiver Nellie McClung, who was pretty hot on eugenics and lead the charge to sterilize the mentally challenged? Or do they get a pass for being in the Canadian Progressive Pantheon?

    On the broader question, this proposal seems purposely oblivious to the awfulness it would cause. Dismissing the re-naming conversations as “not easy” is quite an understatement. I think “violent” would be closer to the mark. I understand that it suits the anti-capitalist agenda to argue that non-aboriginals should only live in Canada as apologetic settler-colonists. But “social justice” advocates need to understand most people don’t share that view. This effort would be seen, correctly in my view, as an attack on the identity and existence of the people who call these places home. Attempting to de-legitimize the presence of non-aboriginals in Canada is not a way to make a more inclusive society. It’s a way to make more Burnt Churches.

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