1. Happy Black People Zoo Day!
When my mother was a little girl in Port of Spain, Trinidad, before Independence, May 24th was still known as Empire Day. On that day, the schoolchildren got out early to march in front of the white colonial officials. Waving Union Jack flags, the children, descendants of people enslaved by the British Empire, sang about how “Britons never would be slaves.”
In the burning hot tropical sun, governors and other politicians wearing full military uniforms designed for warfare in Europe would propagandize the children about the glories of England, the civilization brought to them by being part of the glorious Empire, and how lucky they, the inferior races, were for the benevolence of the Queen and the generosity of Britain in governing them.
The indoctrination of children was central to the holiday, celebrated across the empire, intended to alert white children to their responsibilities and the “burden” of subduing primitive peoples, while reminding colonized children of their rightful place under the boot of empire. The military might of the empire was paraded in front of them as an object of envy to impress upon them their degraded state, and as a threat to assure them they could never step out of line.
This was, of course, the same British Empire that arrested my Grandfather on the Eve of World War II for sedition for singing lyrics that pointed out the hypocrisy of Britain’s claims to be bringing democracy to the world while they maintained colonies “ruled with an iron hand.” The same British Empire that refused him an advanced degree in chemistry because of his race, despite his qualifications, so that he made fireworks in the backyard to support his family.
This occupation, paired with his trade unionist and anti-colonial politics, got him labelled a potential terrorist, and led to frequent police raids on the house looking for bombs. My family tells of my tiny and religious Grandmother standing over the stove with my mother on her hip calmly cooking as the police searched the home, while all the gunpowder and fireworks were stored inside the oven.
This same royal family, who bragged about oppressing people all across the globe where “the sun never set on the British Empire,” who presided over massacres and famines, who founded concentration camps across Africa to suppress uprisings and tortured populations, who you could spin a globe, put down a finger and most likely land on a place where they perpetrated atrocities and death including most of the oceans, whose victims are uncountable — beyond the hundreds of millions — and who live off the wealth gathered from the exploited labour and resources of Black and brown people across the globe through enslavement, indentureship, and colonization, whose ruthless divide and rule colonial policies in “the great game” still play a role in much of the global conflict we still experience, now flaunt their babies on the covers of tabloid magazines as though the blood of generations doesn’t drip from their hands, as though they shouldn’t be shunned, stripped of their palaces and wealth, booed everywhere they go, and despised by all decent people with any sense of justice.
Justice in 2017: we fire people for social media posts, but allow the royal family to live freely, celebrated as quaint and charming and nostalgically presented in movies and TV shows that represent the “golden age” of imperial wealth conveniently leaving out the horrors of colonization. We can breathlessly mourn the death of one of the Queen’s corgis, while forgetting all about the millions of colonized people who died under imperial policy.
So of course in Canada, we still celebrate imperialism in the form of Victoria Day, established in 1845 to honour Queen Victoria’s birthday on May 24, 1819, and formally designated as a holiday following her death in 1901. The holiday was “purposely constructed to tighten the ties that bound Britain’s remaining North American colonies to the ‘mother’ country” (Palmer).
In much of the rest of the former Empire, Empire Day was changed to Commonwealth Day, and moved to March to purge it of previous associations: even in England the day is no longer celebrated.
Canadians no doubt barely know the origins or significance of this holiday (in Quebec, it has been made over into nationalist holiday), which is treated as the official start of summer and the opening of the Public Gardens and campgrounds rather than a reminder of the “onward march of imperial civilization” and the subjection of the savage “lower races” to the rule of whites.
This would be the Canada that holds itself up as “peaceful,” “welcoming,” and “multicultural,” yet maintains a celebration of the queen and era that perpetrated death, violence, starvation, conflagration, conversion, beatings, surveillance, prison camps, torture, and repression upon the majority of the world’s peoples.
According to Mary Lou Emery, Empire Day celebrations in England in the early 1900s frequently featured exhibitions that “displayed black people as entertaining spectacle.”
These ranged in kind from enactments of the warfare between British settlers and the Ndebele in a show called “savage South Africa” that employed black actors, to Edward’s coronation parade in 1902 which displayed the battles and human spoils of empire in the “kings, rajahs, presidents, chiefs, emperors and prime ministers” called to witness it and in the generals and troops from all over the empire who marched in it. As [Jeffrey] Green points out, all of these shows participated in “the centuries-old tradition of parading captives from foreign lands as evidence of military success.” He adds that, “in Edwardian Britain displays of Black people also supported the widespread belief that white people in general, and Britons in particular, were superior.”
Black people Zoo Day, awesome.
Of course, now that I’ve drawn attention to the fact that Black people might possibly think Victoria Day has racist and colonial implications, white people who had no idea this holiday wasn’t the “May 2-4” and sponsored by beer companies will immediately discover a burning attachment to Queen Victoria and proclaim that we can’t possibly rewrite history, and where does it stop, and political correctness, and elimination of the white race, etc. etc. solely because celebrating colonial massacres and genocides might possibly bother Black people.
Just like how white people couldn’t give two shits about who Cornwallis was until Mi’kmaq people pointed out that maybe celebrating scalping children wasn’t quite the thing.
Whenever we point out the realities of history, suddenly the same people who spend all their time eliminating history from the curriculum and defunding the humanities become attached to their version of history as the most important thing to “Canadian identity” and if we ever renamed the holiday white people would all die or something.
If people truly love the celebration of history, maybe we should revive the 1960s tradition, described by Bryan D. Palmer, of anti-police riots and political uprisings on Victoria Day. As he recounts in his essay “Riotous Victorianism,” anti-establishment resistance became common on the holiday. For example, in Hamilton, Ontario:
The first year of serious confrontation, 1961, saw 400 youngsters pelt the initial wave of law enforcement – six officers and a police dog named Sandy – with cannon-type firecrackers. As news-paper boxes were set ablaze, gasoline fires were lit in the streets, and tires put to the torch. The crowd soon overwhelmed the small police forces, refusing to disperse, and continued the bombardment of firecrackers, necessitating the calling out of reserves. Arrests were futile, it being impossible to establish who was throwing the incendiary missiles from the large and unruly mob. An ice cream vendor wheeled his truck into the melee and did a roaring business. It seemed the world had turned upside down, and youth were finally on top, slurping ice cream and tossing “bangers” at uniformed authority. The Hamilton Spectator deplored “the noisy climax to Victoria Day,” bemoaning the “frightening defiance of the law.” In the end roughly twenty-five policemen were called in to cope with the crowd, the dog was forced into protective custody in a cop car [my italics], and it was not until midnight that the streets were cleared and safe.
So kind of like your average hockey playoff game in Canada, then.
I’m not actually sure how this can be possible, because I thought all rioting, social disorder, threats to the police, etc. sprang into existence with the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. How can it be possible that white youth in 1961 were creating a disturbance in the streets? Maybe time travelling members of Black Lives Matter went back in time and incited them.
Anyway, it’s far more likely that Victoria Day will be celebrated by the continuance of colonial practices upon the bodies of Indigenous, Black and POC, such as targeting us for police checks in the traffic stops set up to catch drunk drivers, charging only Indigenous people with public drunkenness, and executing noise complaints on Black parties and celebrations. Opening your cottage on stolen Indigenous land is also a good option.
Happy Victoria Day weekend, everybody. Relax by cracking a cold one, doing some gardening, watching The King’s Speech on Netflix, and displaying a Black person as entertaining spectacle.
On Monday, news outlets including the Nova Scotia Advocate and Metro Halifax covered the election survey created by the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition and Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, and sent out to every candidate running for office in the provincial election.
The survey is intended to be filled out individually by each candidate: the purpose of this is to encourage people to not simply defer to the party platform, but to learn about the issues and think through their positions themselves. To this end, the survey also acts as an educational tool, providing links to articles, maps, and other documents to help candidates understand some of the issues impacting African Nova Scotians.
The survey is also intended as an organizing tool. Rather than waiting for candidates to address these issues, or begging to be included, the survey starts from the position that Black issues are significant, that they must be addressed, and that Black people are equals in the political process. Rather than taking Black votes for granted, or expecting Black people to accept the “least of evils,” the survey proposes that Black people demand of their representatives that our issues are addressed, and that candidates understand that they cannot simply plead ignorance of Black issues or see these issues as fringe and easily ignored.
In the past week, the dismissal of candidates from each party for social media posts, including the dismissal of PC candidate Jad Crnogorac for posts that included mocking the Black Lives Matter movement, and bemoaning the oppression of white people by BET, has made responses to this survey even more crucial.
Me after my cheat meal and i have eaten too much .. pic.twitter.com/5nTOITQ4PQ
— Jad Crnogorac (@jadcrnogorac) March 21, 2015
It’s one thing to dismiss a candidate for her views on Black Lives Matter or reverse racism. But we still have a premier and Liberal Party leader who was professed himself to be “startled” at police check data, yet said he was not going to “tell police how to do their jobs.” We still have a police chief who refuses to accept any recommendations around ending racial profiling. If party leaders really want to support the aims of Black Lives Matter, then committing to ending racial profiling and police harassment of Black people is a necessary first step.
As the survey indicates, issues of access to justice, policing, and incarceration heavily impact African Nova Scotian communities, and any commitment to ending racism must include serious solutions to these issues.
If party leaders think racism is not acceptable, will the justice minister from whatever party ends up in power commit to addressing the over-incarceration of African Nova Scotians? Crown attorneys are understandably complaining about the new hires for prosecution services to deal with sexual assault not being front-line prosecutors.
What about hiring policy advisors to help train prosecutors in the criminalization of Black people and stereotyping of Black defendants, and designing policy to prevent convictions or harsher sentences based on racialized assumptions of Black violence and pathology?
How about funding badly needed studies on things like jury selection and racial bias in Nova Scotia, and the conviction rates for Black people with all-white juries?
Howard Sapers’ report on federally sentenced Black inmates details the criminalization of Black people inside prisons — high rates of institutional charges, solitary confinement, and reduced access to parole, absences and other benefits, and being assessed at higher risk levels despite having lower re-offending rates than other people. Given our knowledge of disproportionate policing and charging of Black people, and the unfair penalties given to Black people in the system, using these records in court to deny bail, call for harsher sentences, or “prove” guilt helps create a system where Black people are wrongfully convicted or given inequitable treatment for the same crimes as other people.
Black people doing time in our provincial jails are also denied access to cultural programming, correct hair and skin products, and deal with racist comments or racial insensitivity while feeling they have no way to complain or have their concerns heard.
The majority of the recommendations from the Marshall Inquiry regarding African Nova Scotians have still not been implemented more than 25 years on. As the survey indicates, cultural assessments for African Nova Scotian defendants should be mandatory to reflect the systemic oppression and over-involvement in the justice system of Black people.
The survey also raises other significant issues of environmental racism, land claims, education, health, immigration, and employment. Of particular interest is the final item on reparations:
The global reparations movement advocates to recognize the wrongs of the past (enslavement, segregation and racial exploitation) including present systemic, institutional, economic, psychological and environmental racism and its effects on Black communities. Reparations serve to acknowledge that there is an obligation on governments to repair the consequences and violations of the Atlantic Slave trade and related injustices.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic popularized arguments for reparations in the United States. In Nova Scotia, the Global Afrikan Congress and Lynn Jones have been active in exploring reparations in a local context. Should candidates and party leaders recognize the historical injustice done to Afrikan peoples, and our right for redress, Nova Scotia could become true leaders in the global movement for justice. This survey presents an opportunity for those running for office to take a truly “bold” and “innovative” stance on the rights of African people.
I am looking forward to the results of this survey, as they provide an opportunity for candidates to present a platform relevant to Black historical, social, and political issues. Too often efforts focus mainly on badgering Black people to vote without offering Black people anything significant to vote for: if Black people are alienated from the system and cynical about “democracy” it is because we recognize how little it serves us. The survey reverses that lens, and rather than asking how Black people can engage with the political process, it demands that candidates engage with us. It also provides the opportunity to craft meaningful, progressive, and substantial policy on these issues, and to create platforms that actually address significant injustices.
The results are due on May 24th. Responses will also be shared in the pages of the Examiner.