by Hilary Beaumont
Wednesday morning, more than 80 former residents of Africville and their descendants crammed into a federal courtroom, the largest in the Upper Water courthouse, to ask a judge for an amendment to their lawsuit against the city.
Wednesday’s submissions were the first step down what former residents hope will be the road to individual compensation for the homes Halifax bulldozed nearly half a century ago.
In 1962, the City of Halifax began the process of clearing the people of Africville from their land on the shores of the Bedford Basin. The city says it negotiated with the landowners and paid fair prices for the properties. But Africville residents have long said they were bullied off their land and out of their homes.
Wednesday, expropriation lawyer for the plaintiffs Robert Pineo argued the residents weren’t paid fairly for their land, and the city gave them the impression they had no legal recourse, when the opposite was true.
Pineo, of Patterson Law, is representing 50 plaintiffs — 34 living and 16 estates — with Africville roots who want to amend the original 1996 lawsuit so they can seek individual compensation from the city. “These amendments are aimed at deciding the issue once and for all,” Pineo told justice Patrick Duncan yesterday.
On the cusp of amalgamation in 1996, the Africville Genealogy Society and former residents worried that incorporation of the city into the Halifax Regional Municipality would quash any legal recourse Africville residents had against the City of Halifax, so they filed the lawsuit that year.
In 2010, after years of negotiation, the city and some — but not all — Africville plaintiffs settled out of court. The city gave the AGS 2.5 acres of land and $3 million to rebuild the community’s church the city bulldozed without warning one night in 1967. Mayor Peter Kelly also apologized to the residents and their descendants.
As part of the settlement, the AGS signed releases promising no future legal action against the city on behalf of 48 estates. Another 45 people signed releases or discontinued their claims.
When I spoke to AGS president Irvine Carvery a couple weeks ago, he said the settlement with the city was never intended to be the final step in the lawsuit. He said it was the first step, and that other residents could then go on to seek compensation later.
But that’s a major sticking point for the city. City lawyers argued in court yesterday that anyone who signed a release as part of the 2010 settlement should not be able to join the current suit. The city says anyone who wants to rejoin should offer evidence that they signed a release improperly — for example, under duress, or due to faulty legal advice.
Pineo is arguing the landowners who signed releases didn’t understand what they were releasing. He’ll need to prove that, the city says.
Another issue at play is the limitation period on legal recourse for the expropriation. The city says time has run out to seek a remedy for the expropriation.
But Pineo says the landowners were never told their properties were being expropriated, so the clock on the limitation period never started to tick.
The city says it gave notice of expropriation in the form of a newspaper ad in 1969 and a letter handed to Arron Carvery the same year. And, city lawyers argued, they owned almost all of the land by 1969, so they didn’t need to give notice.
But Pineo says the city expropriated “communal land” too — land that was shared by the community — but didn’t tell residents that land was being expropriated.
That’s the crux of Pineo’s argument for an amendment: the city should have told residents their land was being taken by expropriation, and that they could fight the process. Instead he says the city gave residents the impression they had to leave— money in hand or nothing.
That’s why many residents want individual compensation today. They say they weren’t given the chance to fight for their land, or the opportunity to ask for fair market value.
As he waited outside the courtroom in a hallway crammed with Africville residents and descendants, 72-year-old Nelson Carvery said, “I just love seeing my people all together. Maybe we should have a party after.”
As a kid in Africville, Nelson skated on the pond in the winter and fished and swam in the ocean in the summer. It was like living in the country, he said. He would take a bus into town, and he knew everyone in Africville by name.
He stayed in Africville until he was 18, and then went travelling to stretch his legs. When he came back to Halifax, his father was living in rental housing in the city, and Africville was gone.
People told him about the relocation. “I didn’t have any say in it,” Nelson recalls.
The city had paid $14,000 for his dad’s home, barn, chickens and other farm animals, and a small store his father had opened in the house. Now Nelson dreams of rebuilding his father’s house and barn on the same spot.
Nelson doesn’t believe the 2010 settlement was a good deal for the community. He thinks the mayor at the time, Peter Kelly, apologized sincerely, “but that’s only words.” He wants full compensation for the land the city took from his father.
The only motion granted Wednesday was Pineo’s request to re-add two former residents who discontinued their claims against the city in 2010. No problem, the judge said. The issue of whether residents who signed releases can be re-added is the most controversial point and will take much longer to decide, Justice Duncan said. That decision could be months down the road. And if the amendment is granted, it could be years before residents see compensation.