On Friday, teachers in Nova Scotia walked out in a historic strike. Locally, the teachers’ resistance is a blow against the Liberal Government’s “war on labour.” As Larry Haiven writes:
Eager to balance the provincial budget by the end of its first term, the Liberal government has declared war on labour. It introduced a spate of restrictive legislation, beginning by gutting first contract arbitration, then banning a strike by home-care workers, then imposing an essential services regime on 40,000 health and social services workers, then attempting to gerrymander health-care bargaining units (which blew up in the government’s face) and then giving universities the power to declare financial exigency and bypass collective agreement provisions. In December 2015, it introduced Bill 148, giving it the power to impose a strict limit on public-sector pay and forbidding even arbitrators from awarding more. It held and still holds that passed but unproclaimed law over the heads of 75,000 workers.
The strike is also significant globally. As the pick of Betsy DeVos for Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education made clear, attacks on teachers’ unions are part of a broader global agenda to privatize public education. The concerted effort to destroy public education is in its turn an effort to further disenfranchise the poorest people and communities of colour, accompanied by a consistent stripping of the social safety net along with an expansion of the police state and mass incarceration.
Teacher testimony detailing the effects of these decades-long policies to sabotage public education reveals practices that have been implemented worldwide in the neoliberal “Global Education Reform Movement” (GERM), a phrase “used to describe a pernicious range of policies that have increased the involvement of corporations in education, alongside cuts in teacher numbers and a narrowing of the curriculum. Around the globe our education system is in upheaval, and it is being characterised by education commentators as nothing short of a noxious virus.”
The goal of these policies is to institute top-down education methods that turn teachers into low-paid “curriculum deliverers” (or, as one Nova Scotia teacher described it, a “conveyer belt“.)
Under neoliberalism, education is taken “out of the hands of those who create it and should own it — teachers, students, and the public. Instead, we are seeing it turned into an internationally-tradable commodity.”
Strategies such as an emphasis on testing, data collection, standardized curriculum, and cuts in school resources and services all are tools in what amounts to a global corporate takeover of education. Rory Leitch in a Facebook comment observes that:
We have also seen a very distinctive pattern in human resources emerging as a result of GERM: that is, new teachers are subjected to impossible working conditions…burn out, and then leave the profession before five years. This is not an accident; it is the design of GERM to get rid of teaching as a profession and replace it with low paying delivery of standardized curriculum. Working against this process, teachers’ unions like the NSTU are trying to defend the vocation of teaching as a lifetime profession for highly trained and committed teachers.
The Nova Scotia teachers’ refusal to accept these conditions in their classrooms therefore resonates globally as a pushback to broader austerity policies and the wider attack on society’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
But if the teachers’ strike is a challenge to these local and global trends of against workers, in the International Decade for People of African Descent declared by the United Nations, the teachers’ collective stand can also illustrate key ideas in the fight for reparations. Reparations is understood as:
[A] recognition of the massive harms done and resources taken historically, and of the continuing impacts and related ongoing injustices today. It is a demand that resources which have accumulated over centuries in centres of wealth and power in Europe and North America be returned to the descendants of those whose enslavement made that wealth possible (and who as a consequences experience ongoing immiseration). And it is a demand that the ongoing social relations that continue to organize harm and suffering and premature death into Black lives, from the very architecture of the current global order to the much more immediate and local, be transformed in just directions.
We would not, of course, immediately associate a strike by Nova Scotia teachers with the historical claims of African people upon the state for compensation for exploited labour, resources, and land of African people, but in fact the principles articulated by the teachers throughout the bargaining process about the importance of investing significant funds in education for the good off all make the case for the necessity of government resources through reparations programs being returned to Black communities.
Work to rule, demonstrating the crushing free work expected from teachers, has also drawn our attention to the exploitation of labour under capitalism, a recognition at the root of the fight for reparations which is founded upon the acknowledgement of the unpaid labour of African people in building up nations.
Throughout the bargaining process, the teachers have repeatedly emphasized the effect that systemic under-resourcing has on not only the education, but the well-being of students, and by extension their families and communities. Teacher testimony has demonstrated how, over decades, a systematic stripping of supports has led to classrooms where students cannot access the skills they need, where mental health is severely impacted, and where teachers are undergoing trauma and labour exploitation in an attempt to manage in this environment. They have consistently called for the immediate investment of resources into the education system to remedy these problems, and have made clear that these resources must be collective: that is, the fight is not just about teacher salaries and individual compensation, but about the collective well-being of students and the school community.
African people make the same arguments about our communities. Black communities have been systematically deprived of resources for centuries. Our labour has been uncompensated and under-compensated. The conditions caused by this deprivation and exploitation have led to trauma, for which we are denied mental health resources. Just as teachers detail the catastrophic effect these policies have on their classrooms, Black communities show the impact through events such as shootings, which reflect this sustained denial of supports.
Yet, when solutions are discussed for these shootings, the question of reparations is not taken seriously as a necessary response. Just as teachers are expected to bear responsibility for the effects of education cuts, as Dr. Afua Cooper observed, “politicians are passing the buck.”
They are saying that a besieged, bereaved and under-resourced black community must know how and why its young male members are being killed, and must provide the solution for the shootings…
…I call on the mayor and premier to assume some responsibility for the loss of these African Nova Scotian men. I call on them to commit to improving health, financial, educational and employment resources to the African Nova Scotian community so that folks can once and for all banish this violence from their lives.
Reparations, as Robin D.G. Kelley observes, are dismissed both as the due of Africans and as a social solution. They are seen as violating the principles of democracy and laissez-faire capitalism.
Slavery is behind us, we are told, and any payments to black people would be divisive or an act of discrimination against white people. Others argue that black people have already received billions of dollars of aid through welfare and poverty programs and therefore if there was a debt owed us, it has been paid many times over. Right-wing critics like Dinesh D’Souza go one step further, arguing that the only people deserving of reparations are the slave masters, and presumably their descendants, since the government “freed” their property without compensation!
Like teachers labelled “greedy” by critics for fighting for fair compensation for their work, Africans who argue for reparations are labelled as asking for a handout. Teachers, we are told, must give free labour to keep the school system running, and when they refuse to provide this exploited work, they are blamed for shortchanging students. This portioning of blame to teachers is similar to the rhetoric used against Black communities who are held responsible for generations of oppression, and told we must solve the problems of poverty and crime caused by these policies.
Reparations begins with the recognition of the uncompensated labour of Africans in building the wealth of first world nations. Despite mythologies of the underground railroad, slavery was present in Nova Scotia, and the labour of enslaved (or, later, indentured) people contributed to settlement.
More broadly, as a harbour city, Halifax’s economy was founded on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Halifax, for example, was the greatest supplier of salt cod to Haitian plantations. Goods intended for slave plantations and products created by enslaved people vastly enriched Halifax’s business families, and commerce in these products extracted from African labour built up Halifax’s economy.
Beyond the profit from the slave economy, there are long histories in the province of the expropriation of land and resources from African communities, from broken promises on land grants, to the destruction of the Black community in the Shelburne race attacks, to Africville, to the struggle over land title in North Preston. As was revealed by the lawsuit over the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, Black children were given only one third of the money of white children in care, a demonstration of the systematic denial of resources.
It would take a much longer essay to list every historical case for compensation for African people for exploited labour, broken promises, stripped land and resources, denial of loans and housing, segregation policies, the deliberate concentration of Black people in under-resourced communities due to housing policy, refusal of mortgages, etc., lack of access to employment and education, deliberate infliction of trauma, and the effects of oppression on the community.
The results of this historical concentrated assault on Black communities are present in numbers such as the high rates of school suspensions for African Nova Scotian students (eight per cent of the students, nearly a quarter of suspensions) and the disproportionate rates of incarceration (two per cent of the population, 14 per cent of adult jails provincially, and 16 per cent of youth.)
To take one example focused on education, Nova Scotia created segregated schooling in 1865. As Sylvia Hamilton observes:
While the way in which children of colour were treated cannot be collapsed or directly compared with the horrific experiences of Aboriginal and Inuit children, the core racist beliefs that yielded separation by race were the same, and this did not abate even after the adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948, of which Article 26 reads:
“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages … It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace … Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”
For many Canadian students this right was denied solely because of their race. Racial prejudice, coupled with severe economic circumstances, meant that many Black people growing up in the first half of the twentieth century ended their formal schooling before finishing grade nine; some left before reaching grades five or six.
For these students, aspirations to higher learning and to various professions were quashed because the doors were usually closed. Educator and African Baptist minister Dr. W.P. Oliver put it bluntly when he said:
Segregated schools are a barrier to good inter-group relations. They are a visible symbol of separation, and a denial of the right ‘to belong.’ Such schools became the stamp of approval of the mental apartheid that exists in many white minds.
While Black people were denied access to equal education, Black people still paid taxes to the state, subsidizing white schools. This system of segregation benefited white students who received superior resources and funding. Similarly, while city services such as water and sewage were denied to Africville, Black residents paid taxes to the city. Black residents have thus for decades subsidized white people without receiving services in return and without being able to access the institutions they contribute to. Reparations are in this context understood as delayed payment for services.
Ta-Nehisi Coates defines reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences,” observing that:
One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers [on poverty and crime] partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.” Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.
Just as the problems in the public school system are blamed on teachers, while the school system depends upon free labour by teaches, Black communities are victimized by a similar rhetoric which holds individuals responsible for government policy aimed at destruction. And just as teachers recognize that the solution is not more demonization of teachers but an investment in resources and supports, reparations for African people similarly argues that the return of resources to Black communities is a necessary solution to the poverty, crime, and lack of opportunity that have been inflicted upon us.
Robin Kelley argues that reparations should be understood not narrowly as only compensation for past injustice, but as a tool of social change:
If we think of reparations as part of a broad strategy to radically transform society — redistributing wealth, creating a democratic and caring public culture, exposing the ways capitalism and slavery produced massive inequality — then the ongoing struggle for reparations holds enormous promise for revitalizing movements for social justice. Consider the context: for at least the last quarter century we have witnessed a general backlash against the black community…[Governments] dismantled most state protections for poor people of colour…All these cutbacks were justified by a discourse that blamed black behavior for contemporary urban poverty, and turned what were once called “rights” (i.e. welfare) into “privileges.” The argument for reparations not only recasts these measures as rights but as payback…Thus federal assistance to black people in any form is not a gift, but a down payment for centuries of unpaid labor, violence, and exploitation.
Note that the same policies teachers are fighting against — cutbacks that turn rights into privileges under austerity politics — are the same processes recognized by Black people in the fight for reparations. Justice in our communities as well as in our classrooms, requires the just distribution of wealth. As Kelley points out, the reparations movement:
...[H]elps us all to understand how wealth and poverty are made under capitalism — particularly a capitalism shaped immeasurably by slavery and racism. It stresses the fact that labor — not CEOs, not scientists or technicians, not the magic of the so-called free market — creates wealth. The reparations movement provides an analysis of our situation that challenges victim-blaming explanations, explaining that exploitation and regressive policies create poverty, not bad behavior.
These same critiques underpin the teachers’ strike for educational justice. In their call to return money to classrooms, they echo the call of those in the reparations movement to do justice by returning resources to Black communities. Just as teachers recognize that these resources are not optional extras, reparations should be understood as necessities for the continued survival of Black communities.
It is striking how the testimony of teachers to classroom conditions matches the calls by Black communities for similar supports, and details the same traumatic effects when communities are stripped of what they need to function.
The reparations movement, like Nova Scotia teachers, emphasizes “investments in institutions rather than individual payments.” And like teachers, Black activists for reparations like Kelley call for investment in education, as well as in housing, infrastructure, and civic organizations. Reparations plans emphasize building collective resources through using reparations payments to fund schools, secure land and housing, build an economic base within the Black community, and create institutions that lead to self-determination rather than dependence on the crumbs doled out by the state. All of these goals echo the demands of teachers for classrooms that return education to the students and teachers and away from data collection and failed policy.
If we support the teachers in fighting for a return of capital into our schools, we should also support the struggle for reparations, which argues for the same investment of resources in Black institutions in order to uplift the entire community.
Teachers have made very clear through their eloquent testimony about the conditions in schools that when communities are denied what they need, violence, mental health issues, and a breakdown in relationships are all consequences. These same consequences have been experienced for generations in Black communities.
The need for reparations is summed up in the words of teacher Stephanie Dean-Moore. “We’re at a crisis situation. We cannot meet the needs of our youth the way our [communities] are today.”
For further discussion on the reparations movement in Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia chapter of the Global Afrikan Congress is meeting today, Saturday, February 17 at 1:30-4:PM at the North Branch Library for the event “Claiming Our Contributions: Naming Our Reparations.”
“Join the Global Afrikan Congress – NS Chapter in an afternoon discussion focused on reparatory justice for African people in NS & abroad. It is thinkable in this the International Decade of People of African Descent and it is possible in the 21st Century.”