An international scientific committee from the United Nations will meet in Halifax this week to discuss the world’s largest forced migration in history: the African slave trade.

The Routes of Enslaved Peoples Project, formerly known as The Slave Route Project, was founded in 1994 as an initiative by UNESCO.

The project is made up of 20 committee members from around the world who meet every two years to discuss the causes, consequences, and impacts of the transatlantic slave trade.

The conference, which takes place from Thursday to Saturday, will be the first time the group meets in North America.

“Nova Scotia was chosen as the place to have the meeting because of the long and deep Black history of this province,” said Dr. Afua Cooper who teaches Black Studies at Dalhousie University and who became a board member for the Routes of Enslaved Peoples Project in 2020.

Black lady in African clothing and blue head wrap
Dr. Afua Cooper is a board member for the the UNESCO “Routes of Enslaved Peoples: Resistance, Liberty and Heritage” Project. Photo:

“The various places that we’re going to be taking the committee to — Africville, Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, the Prestons, and so on — is to make the history of Black people in Canada better known. Nova Scotia, in particular.”

Cooper said since its inception, the organization’s main objectives are to break the silence around the enslavement of African people to have its history be better known around the world. She said the group has worked to have the history included in school curriculums to educate people the causes and effects of slavery and how “the enslavement of African people basically transformed the world.”

“Not just the enslavement that happened within the Americas — say, North America, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean Islands — but also the taking away of African captives to India, to Asia, to Iran, to Turkey, to places in the Middle East,” Cooper said.

“Black people have been deprived of their knowledge of themselves, perhaps more than any other people on this planet. Our ancestors were stolen from Africa, they were brought here and then we were denied our history and knowledge of self. That’s a crime.”

“I see part of my work as bringing that to the fore and to honour my ancestors. My work is for humanity as a whole, but it’s for Black people in particular.”

Cooper said through UNESCO, the Routes of Enslaved Peoples Project designates sites of African memory throughout the world.

“The Citadel in Haiti that was built by the formerly enslaved people in Haiti when they defeated the French during the Haitian Revolution, for example. That’s a site of African memory. So UNESCO goes and identifies these places and they get official status as sites of memory.”

She said the Africville Museum is currently in the process of submitting a proposal to have the former community land of Africville designated as a site of memory by the UN.

“Africville now has national, federal designation,” Cooper said. “But to have an international designation coming from UNESCO, that’s a big deal, because that’s the United Nations. You can’t get higher than that.”

A black and white photo of a community with a house in the background and three men standing along a wall. In the foreground of the photo is a sign next to a well that says please boil the water before drinking and cooking.
Africville (Canadian Encyclopedia)

Part of the conference will also discuss Black history in other parts of Canada.

“There will be a presentation on the Underground Railroad and the Windsor-Detroit region down there in Ontario and Michigan, and the cross-border relationship between Blacks in the United States and Blacks in Ontario, and the Detroit River as this frontier, this frontier of freedom,” Cooper said. A group in the Detroit River Frontier region is now in the process of putting forth a proposal to become a site of African historic memory.

The conference, titled ‘Legacies of the Past, Building the Future: Mobilising Afro-Descent Stories’, starts with a press conference Thursday at 2pm at the Hotel Atlantica in Halifax.

The project’s scientific committee will hold meetings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday morning.

On Friday at 12:15, Dr. Cooper will be moderating a panel discussion titled ‘Slavery, Freedom, and the Black Loyalists Experience in Canada and Sierra Leone’ with Ibrahim Abdullah from the University of Sierra Leone, Isaac Saney from Dalhousie University, Graham Nickerson from the University of New Brunswick, and Ismail Rashid from Vassar College in New York.

At 1:30 there will be a second virtual panel on education hosted by Wayn Hamilton, with panelists Marlene Ruck-Simmonds the executive director of the African Canadian Education branch of the Department of Education, and Karen Hudson the principal of Auburn Drive High School.

There will be a presentation on sites of memory and African Nova Scotian history followed by a tour of a Beechville Artifacts Exhibit at the Museum of National History. A reception will take place at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook.

A blue roadside that says Welcome to East Preston, Halifax. The sign is standing just in a wooded area along a road.
Welcome to East Preston. Photo: African Nova Scotian Directory.

Following Saturday’s committee meeting, a group will visit locations in Beechville, Upper Hammonds Plains, Dartmouth, the Preston Townships, and Africville. The tour will stop at Citadel Hill and will conclude on the Halifax waterfront.

“It will be a wonderful meeting and a wonderful conference and it’s a chance for us to showcase Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Canada, and to talk about the long Black history in this country from coast to coast to coast,” Cooper said.

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Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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