Skip to main content
elizabeth renzetti

This piece was originally published in September of 2017.

Graveyards are a wonderful classroom for the living. Not just for the finger-wagging from the great beyond ("Death's a debt that's nature's due/Which I have paid, and so must you"), but for the lessons they offer about the past, and the future.

On a chilly night in August, I stood in a graveyard in Nova Scotia and learned about a woman whose history I should have known. Annapolis Royal – pretty, tiny, perched on the lip of the province – is situated on traditional Mi'kmaq territory that was settled by Europeans in 1605. The past lives in its streets, and is buried in the old garrison graveyard of Fort Anne, one of the most hotly fought-over bits of land in Canadian history.

Twenty years ago I took one of historical interpreter Alan Melanson's famous candlelight tours of the garrison graveyard, and I didn't expect much to have changed when I returned this year – cemeteries not being known for their adherence to new trends. But there was something new: An elegant monument to one of the town's great entrepreneurs, a black Loyalist named Rose Fortune.

A freed slave who had arrived with her family in Nova Scotia just before the American War of Independence, Rose became a famous figure in town, using her wheelbarrow to help transport travellers' goods from the wharves to their lodgings. She is also often referred to as the country's first unofficial policewoman, as she enthusiastically applied her baton to keep local rowdy teens in line. Her business grew and prospered, and she became the matriarch of a Nova Scotia transport dynasty. On July 1 this year, Rose's monument, a metal sculpture that also functions as a bench, designed by artist Brad Hall, was unveiled in the garrison graveyard.

We gathered around the bench, holding our lanterns high, as Mr. Melanson related Rose Fortune's story. I wondered why I'd never heard it before. I had spent many childhood summers in Annapolis with my grandparents, and they'd never mentioned it; perhaps they didn't know either. The little I knew of black Nova Scotians in those days had to do with how my grandmother's few black classmates were treated abysmally in their rural school.

Which is to say that history has a lot of gaps to fill, and a lot of amends to make, and now is the time to make them. Monuments have very little to do with the past, and everything to do with the societies that create – and remove – them. The majority of Confederate statues now so hotly contested in the American South were not erected right after the Civil War, but instead years later in the Jim Crow era, as a way of reinforcing white supremacy. By the same token, everything we need to know about the current political moment can be summed up in this week's news that the Trump administration may not honour an Obama-era pledge to put abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the U.S. $20 bill in place of slave-owning president Andrew Jackson.

And, of course, it is an indication that Canadians might finally be taking reconciliation seriously if we consider removing John A. Macdonald's name from schools and Hector-Louis Langevin's name from government buildings.

Symbols matter. Who we choose to memorialize and who we choose to forget are clear indications of what a society values: the way forward, or the darkness of the past? When New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the city was taking down four Confederate monuments, he said it was a way of rectifying "a lie of omission." The decision, he acknowledged, was difficult in the moment, but right for the future, "making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong."

In Halifax, just a couple of hours away from Annapolis Royal, they're fighting over what to do about statues of Edward Cornwallis, founder of the city but perhaps more importantly a man who put bounties on the heads of people whose land he helped steal. Take him down? Move him to a museum? Leave him be? Rebecca Thomas, Halifax's poet laureate, lays out some alternatives in her poem Not Perfect. You could, let's just say, consider putting up memorials to people who are worthy (but not perfect), people like Donald Marshall Jr. or Anna Mae Aquash, who also have left their fingerprints on the country's history, but do not get schools named after them, or streets, or hockey arenas.

Scattered around Halifax I found a bunch of fascinating temporary markers dedicated to hometown heroes, none of whom I knew: Clare Gass, a nurse in the First World War, who encouraged John McCrae to publish In Flanders Fields; and George A. Downey, a member of the "Black Battalion," decorated for his service in the First World War, who re-enlisted to fight in the next one, "despite racial discrimination in the forces." On the Halifax pier was a picture of the Jewish Legion, which had trained in Nova Scotia to fight in the First World War, and had included David Ben-Gurion in its ranks.

Temporary markers, all of them. Any one of them could have a prominent permanent memorial, like Rose Fortune's. If we're at a place where individual heroism outweighs political power and military domination in the scale of what we honour, that is. And if we decide to think again about who we should honour. There are a lot of worthy ghosts who could be brought back to life.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct