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ED COLEMAN HISTORY: Cornwallis River - why not change the name?

Sunrise over the Cornwallis River at Port Wiliams Sept. 16
Sunrise over the Cornwallis River at Port Wiliams Sept. 16

Just over a decade ago - on Sept. 24, 2004 to be exact – I wrote about the various names the Cornwallis River has been known by, suggesting that historically, the Mi’kmaq Chijekwtook or the Acadian Riviere St. Antoine (and also Riviere des Habitants) might be more appropriate.

The column came from a discussion I had with Mi’kmaq elder and human rights activist Dr. Daniel Paul. Dr. Paul made it quite plain that honouring Edward Cornwallis, an 18th century governor of Nova Scotia, by naming rivers and streets after him was inappropriate; more than inappropriate, Dr. Paul said, given that Cornwallis was instrumental in what amounted to genocidal action against the Mi’kmaq. 

Recently, an online petition has surfaced lobbying that the Cornwallis name should be removed from our rivers and streets. This echoes Dr. Paul’s stance regarding Cornwallis. I expanded on Dr. Paul’s views in the 2004 column and I looked at the interesting names applied to the Cornwallis River over the years. Since it may move you to sign the online petition or at least consider it, here are excerpts, with some editing, from the column:  

It's unlikely that we will eliminate the use of Cornwallis' name on our streets, business firms and so on, even if a plausible argument for doing so has been made. But if we considered doing it, where would we start and what would be historically correct?

Take the Cornwallis River, for example. In Haliburton's 1829 history of Nova Scotia, the Cornwallis River is shown as Horton River. The Acadians called the river by various names, Riviere St. Antoine in the 1600s and Riviere des Habitants in the 1700s. Then we have the Mi'kmaq name for the Cornwallis, which Dr. Watson Kirkconnell says was Chijekwtook, meaning deep, narrow river. Kirkconnell's source for the native name for the Cornwallis most likely was Dr. Silas Rand, who helped preserve the Mi'kmaq language and compiled a Mi'kmaq dictionary in the 19th century.

It has nothing to do with the fact that the Cornwallis River honours a man of questionable actions, but I've never liked the name. Even before Dr. Paul spoke up about the use of Cornwallis, I considered writing a column suggesting we revert to the original name for the Cornwallis and other county streams. To me, Chijekwtook River has more of a flavour and authenticity than commonplace, unoriginal Cornwallis River. Couldn't our ancestors come up with something better?

I'm surprised also that the Canard River has retained its Acadian designation and someone didn’t rename it after some long ago dignitary. With apologies to Dr. Paul, the Mi’kmaq name for the Canard is quite a mouthful and probably wouldn’t fit on a roadsign; the Mi’kmaq called the river Apcheechkumochwakade, which Dr. Kirkconnell says, undoubtedly quoting Dr. Rand again, translates into “place abounding in little ducks.”

Dr. Kirkconnell and A. W. H. Eaton in his Kings County history give the Mi’kmaq names for various locales here. I’m not suggesting we revert to these names and I give them only to show that they’re much more original and more interesting that today’s designations. Wolfville, for example, was Mtaban; Gaspereau Lake was Pasedoock; Grand Pré was Umtaban; the Gaspereau River was Magapskegechk, and so on.

I noted in the 2004 column that around that time, a member of the Kings Historical Society requested they lobby to have the Cornwallis name removed wherever it is used in the county. The request was briefly considered and never acted upon.

 

The column came from a discussion I had with Mi’kmaq elder and human rights activist Dr. Daniel Paul. Dr. Paul made it quite plain that honouring Edward Cornwallis, an 18th century governor of Nova Scotia, by naming rivers and streets after him was inappropriate; more than inappropriate, Dr. Paul said, given that Cornwallis was instrumental in what amounted to genocidal action against the Mi’kmaq. 

Recently, an online petition has surfaced lobbying that the Cornwallis name should be removed from our rivers and streets. This echoes Dr. Paul’s stance regarding Cornwallis. I expanded on Dr. Paul’s views in the 2004 column and I looked at the interesting names applied to the Cornwallis River over the years. Since it may move you to sign the online petition or at least consider it, here are excerpts, with some editing, from the column:  

It's unlikely that we will eliminate the use of Cornwallis' name on our streets, business firms and so on, even if a plausible argument for doing so has been made. But if we considered doing it, where would we start and what would be historically correct?

Take the Cornwallis River, for example. In Haliburton's 1829 history of Nova Scotia, the Cornwallis River is shown as Horton River. The Acadians called the river by various names, Riviere St. Antoine in the 1600s and Riviere des Habitants in the 1700s. Then we have the Mi'kmaq name for the Cornwallis, which Dr. Watson Kirkconnell says was Chijekwtook, meaning deep, narrow river. Kirkconnell's source for the native name for the Cornwallis most likely was Dr. Silas Rand, who helped preserve the Mi'kmaq language and compiled a Mi'kmaq dictionary in the 19th century.

It has nothing to do with the fact that the Cornwallis River honours a man of questionable actions, but I've never liked the name. Even before Dr. Paul spoke up about the use of Cornwallis, I considered writing a column suggesting we revert to the original name for the Cornwallis and other county streams. To me, Chijekwtook River has more of a flavour and authenticity than commonplace, unoriginal Cornwallis River. Couldn't our ancestors come up with something better?

I'm surprised also that the Canard River has retained its Acadian designation and someone didn’t rename it after some long ago dignitary. With apologies to Dr. Paul, the Mi’kmaq name for the Canard is quite a mouthful and probably wouldn’t fit on a roadsign; the Mi’kmaq called the river Apcheechkumochwakade, which Dr. Kirkconnell says, undoubtedly quoting Dr. Rand again, translates into “place abounding in little ducks.”

Dr. Kirkconnell and A. W. H. Eaton in his Kings County history give the Mi’kmaq names for various locales here. I’m not suggesting we revert to these names and I give them only to show that they’re much more original and more interesting that today’s designations. Wolfville, for example, was Mtaban; Gaspereau Lake was Pasedoock; Grand Pré was Umtaban; the Gaspereau River was Magapskegechk, and so on.

I noted in the 2004 column that around that time, a member of the Kings Historical Society requested they lobby to have the Cornwallis name removed wherever it is used in the county. The request was briefly considered and never acted upon.

 

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