Africville (Canadian Encyclopedia)

On Sept. 25, the United Nations Human Rights Council discussed a report on Canada by its Working Group of Experts on Peoples of African Descent. The report, which shone its white-hot light on our country’s sordid history of slavery and racism in virtually every sphere of life — from education to justice to the environment — called on Ottawa to not only apologize for the sins of our forefathers but also consider paying reparations for them.

Last week, the African Nova Scotian Decade of African Descent Coalition, a local group made up of 25 black community organizations who’d met the experts during their visit to Canada last year, weighed in with its own response. As Lynn Jones, the local chair of the Global African Congress, put it: it is past time for us to address society’s “crime against humanity.”

The coalition not only welcomed the report’s findings — the UN report had reserved its harshest criticism for Nova Scotia — but it also outlined a series of related recommendations of its own, including legally recognizing African Nova Scotians as a “distinct group” and calling on the government to “work with African Nova Scotians to consider reparations in a Nova Scotia context.”

Even that couched, cautious call to consider reparations generated a predictable almost rote why-me response from many white Nova Scotians. I happened to catch part of a segment on the issue on Rich Howe’s News 95.7 talk radio show. If I could summarize what I heard, it would be this: I wasn’t around when slavery existed and I’m not responsible for it, so why should I have to pay reparations. The past is past, things are better now, so let’s just move on…

It’s a comforting argument, but it pre-supposes we, as whites, haven’t benefited from centuries of slavery and racism, or that our black fellow citizens aren’t still suffering its effects. It also assumes the economic, educational, judicial, and social scales are now in perfect colour-blind balance.

Neither notion is correct.

Start with the history of slavery and racism. There were slaves in Nova Scotia even before Halifax’s founding. In 1750, 400 of the city’s 3,000 residents — more than 13 per cent — were slaves. Successive waves of white settlers — old stock New England planters and British loyalists among them — brought their slaves with them to Nova Scotia.

Even the so-called freed slaves who arrived in the province after the American revolution were assigned the worst, rockiest land and then — insult to injury — not even given clear title to it. (In response to the UN report, which also highlighted that issue, the provincial government announced last week it would — belatedly — provide $2.7 million to help residents of five predominantly black communities clear title to their land, a grievance that now dates back centuries.)

Slavery may have been legally abolished in 1834, but the treatment of blacks did not suddenly or even eventually improve. The UN report, for example, calls the late 1960s razing of Africville a “dark period,” and points to an ongoing history of locating landfills next door to predominantly black communities as a form of “environmental racism.”

While noting that African Nova Scotians have demonstrated “resistance and resilience” in the face of such obstacles, the Toronto Star points out:

The report draws a through-line between Canada’s history of racial segregation to the structural racism that “lies at the core” of many Canadian institutions today, manifesting itself in the form of poverty, health problems, low educational attainment, higher rates of unemployment and overrepresentation of black Canadians in the criminal justice system.

Why is it, for example, that the number of blacks in federal prisons increased by more than 71 per cent in the decade between 2005 and 2015?

Or how do we explain the fact, as Afua Cooper, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, told PRIDE, Canada’s daily African Canadian and Caribbean Magazine: “Our kids are over-represented in children’s aid, school dropout [rates], and yet no one seems to think we have a problem.”

Or how about the finding of a 2016 provincial report that showed black students were one-and-a-half times more likely to be shunted into “individual program plans” — the contemporary version of streaming that pushes kids out of university-prep courses — than their white counterparts. Worse, according to the report, close to four in 10 of those black students were inappropriately categorized into IPPs.

While many whites seem to consider racism an historical artifact, even the most conventionally successful members of that community would beg to differ. African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Tony Ince’s reaction to the UN report, for example: “Not surprised at all… This report just basically highlights what most of the community is already aware of.” And Wanda Thomas Bernard, Canada’s first African Nova Scotian senator, told Global TV the report “captured the essence of the anti-black racism that we see here in Nova Scotia and in Canada.”

That disconnect between white and black views of reality on this issue is not surprising, but it is troubling.

We in the white community need to come to terms with the reality we have a racism problem — still — before we can hope to change it. Finally.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Just a thought, we have lot’s of people from a lot of backgrounds over the years that have been slighted by our governments direction based on voting patterns of Nova Scotia and who was included. So the NDP had one of the most progressive platforms seen in a decade in the whole Nation. They served up an introduction to the first steps of serving an under served province with a living wage progression and a step up for education. The people of Nova Scotia turned them down flat, including the people they wanted to help. If we can’t help ourselves, no one else will. Hunger, education, and being part of a family is the universal language we should all be talking about. Let’s work on some basics that will help everyone while we work out the rest! Peace brothers and sisters. :-)) The NDP still has some of the most progressive platforms of any party, don’t be shy, sign up! If you don’t think we are for you and think you have something to say other then just venting, join another party. Make sure your voice is heard and counted! It’s one thing to vent here, but are you feeling like you make a difference? :-))

  2. A well written piece Stephen. Now if only eyes and minds could really open and understand what you have written, then there would be progress.
    I am not in any way attempting to start an argument with anyone, but it behooves me to make the following comment on the previous comments: they still do not get it!

  3. No thoughts on what form reparations might take but pretty sure that any commitments would take many years – if ever- to materialize. There are a whole lot of unkept promises already in the queue. On the matter of land titles, for example, it was a prominent topic in the news forty years ago with general agreement that it deserved priority. Much talk. No action. Let’s see what $2.7 million buys in terms of overdue justice.

  4. In the 18th century nobody knew the location of the ‘ worst,rockiest ‘ land –
    Nova Scotia had not been surveyed.
    Historians frequently refer to sttlers obtaining land grants of tree covered areas across the province and then not settling on the property; and moving to other areas of Canada after hearing that better land was available in other provinces. Dartmouth is one big rock as is peninsula Halifax.
    The best reparation for African Nova Scotians would be ensuring the children receive greater education resources to ensure better outcomes in schools where African Nova Scotians perform so poorly : Harbourview in Dartmouth where only 12% of students met the benchmark in Grade 6 Math; and at Nelson Whynder where only 17% of students met the benchmark in Grade 4 Math. More links are available in my October 7 comment here : https://www.halifaxexaminer.ca/featured/survey-says-morning-file-saturday-october-7-2017/

  5. Social ‘progress’ at gunpoint (which is what reparations would be) has never worked and often produces the opposite result that the would-be social engineer intends. A racist tax (again, this is what reparations would be regardless of how it’s spun) would do more to promote white nationalism than anything the alt-right could ever accomplish. Would Jews or Asians owe anything? Both of those groups are doing fine, despite mostly facing poverty and racism when they arrived in North America.

    Money has to come from somewhere – even if it’s printed into existence it represents a real claim on finite resources – so, Stephen, you’re white (and male!) and made $167,000 at Kings last year, how much of that do you “owe” in reparations? Did you pay any? Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is, instead of trotting out the same old “if you give me power I will steal other people’s stuff and give it to you” line?

    1. Social progress at gunpoint? Um, isn’t that another name for taxes? Which we all pay? What is your salary and how much tax did you pay? You were fine with “outing” Stephen, pony up and let us know yours. Are hospitals and schools “at gunpoint”? How about roads? I, at gunpoint, according to you, pay for road maintenance, whatever, but I don’t own a car.

      OK, next, racist tax? WTF? What about the racist tax we have imposed on our aboriginal peoples for centuries? Give us your land! Now, give up your culture! Is that not a tax of the most extreme sort? Your actual life?

      Taxes is the way that we, as a modern, caring society, help smooth out inequalities within our society. Supposedly anyway. Everything from laws requiring disabled access to public buildings to housing. Any reparations would simply be part of this already existing societal norm. This is REAL progress, as a society. And, you know what? It actually DOES work.

      1. Stephen’s salary is a matter of public record. And yes, I’m in favor of socialist policies, and gasp, taxes, but I think there’s just no justification for applying them in a racist manner. Dividing people up into ethnic camps and collectively punishing some of them is absolutely ridiculous and retrograde.