The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada

The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada

There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship with our collective past and our collective present,

as well as our collective future. To fully understand the context of current conflicts and

events, we need to know the relevant past and its causal relationship.

Brenda Steed-Ross, co-founder of the Africville Genealogy Society, is overcome with emotion hearing apology of Mayor Kelly

A Past Denied

The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada

By Mike Barber

History is not the past, it is how we recount the past. 

A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada is a feature-length documentary by independent filmmaker Mike Barber. The film, which is currently in production, explores how a false sense of history—both taught in the classroom and repeated throughout our national historical narrative—impinges on the present. It examines how 200 years of institutional slavery during Canada’s formation has been kept out of Canadian classrooms, textbooks and social consciousness.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade effectively started in 1444 when Portuguese pirates, operating under the auspices of Prince Henrique, kidnapped 235 Africans from a village near the mouth of the Senegal River and brought them back to Portugal where they were sold as slaves. From that point forward, over 15,000,000 Africans would be forcibly removed from their homeland and sold into slavery in Europe and the Americas; over 30,000,000 others would die in slave wars, work camps, or during transit aboard slave ships until the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade ended in the 1860s.

Today in North America, the use of African slave labour is seen as a uniquely American institution. Canada is reputed as being the Promised Land to the North to where slaves could escape and live as free men and women. The Underground Railroad is our claim to fame, and we toot that horn proudly. Our history textbooks—and much less, our national historical narrative—rarely, if ever mention the two centuries of institutionalized slavery and its role in the founding of Canada.

The version of history taught in Canadian schools tends to serve the interests of nationalist pride rather than education. Figures such as René Bourassa, Colin McNabb, Joseph Papineau and Peter Russell have been made into historical icons, honoured in our texts and on our landscape. All were slave owners and some were rabid advocates of slavery, though today one would never know it. Among the multitude of authoritative biographies on such founding figures, these facts have a tendency to escape any mention, either because the authors chose not to include these facts or because they simply were not aware. Whether this act of censorship is intentional or not the error is compounded, the cycle of ignorance is perpetuated.

History Matters

The subtle underlying message this selective and filtered history conveys is one of white superiority. When students are taught that it is only white people who tend to do anything of historical importance it effectively instills them with a “white people belong on top, people of colour belong on the bottom” outlook on the world. Fed the same false sense of history, white students feel good about their heritage at the expense of non-white students who feel alienated to the point that they begin to tune out. According to figures from the Toronto District School Board, by age 16 more than half of black male teens are at risk of dropping out. In Montréal, the dropout rate among black youth is an estimated 48 per cent. The history curriculum is not solely responsible for these alarming statistics, but it is culpable.

There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship with our collective past and our collective present, as well as our collective future. To fully understand the context of current conflicts and events, we need to know the relevant past and its causal relationship. In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, historian and sociologist James Loewen explains “slavery’s twin legacies” to the present as “the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites.” Both of which, he adds, “continue to haunt our society.” Removing this substantial part of our nation’s development from our historical narrative is not just an academic or moral problem. It has deprived and continues to deprive generations of the ability to identify “the dynamic interplay between slavery as a socioeconomic system and racism as an idea system.”

The film will show the connections between the practice of slavery in the past with racial disparity, tensions, and racism in the present. It will illustrate why telling history in a neutral, accurate and more complete manner is vital to understanding the causal relationship between past, present and future. The overarching point being more than just “history matters,” but rather honest history matters.

Source: PastDenied

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Africville apology is a start, not an end

By Mike Barber

Last week’s apology by city of Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly, for the evictions and razing of the African-Canadian community of Africville in Nova Scotia during the 1960s, marks a small but significant moment in the history of slavery and racism in Canada. The official apology issued February 24, 2010, made on behalf of Halifax Regional Council and Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), was accompanied by terms of the 2005 agreement reached between the municipality and the Africville Genealogy Society, which, along with a formal acknowledgment of loss, included:

—$3 million (CAN) contributed towards the reconstruction of the Seaview United Baptist Church which will serve as a memorial to Africville;

—2.5 acres of land at Seaview Park to be provided to the Africville Heritage Trust Board;

—a park maintenance agreement to be established between Africville Heritage Trust and HRM for the lands known as Seaview Park;

—and, the establishment of an African-Nova Scotian Affairs function within HRM

Roots in slavery and war

Africville’s roots go far back to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) when approximately 3,500 Black Loyalists (free or former enslaved African-Americans who escaped to the British side of the conflict) migrated to Nova Scotia, many of whom fought for the British in return for the promise that they would not be allowed to be enslaved.

Slaveholding Anglo-American Loyalists also migrated to Nova Scotia bringing with them about 2,500 enslaved African-Americans. But unlike their free counterparts, these African-Americans remained enslaved until the practice of slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834—meaning, for a few decades, Nova Scotia simultaneously had two distinct Black populations: one whose freedom was protected, and the other whose enslavement was sanctioned.

The Black Loyalists had been promised free land and equality, however these—not unlike other broken promises and treaties made to First Nations by the Crown—were never kept. The area on the southern shore of the Bedford Basin began being settled after the Anglo-American War of 1812, though it was never established as an official, incorporated community.

Industrialization soon began to encroach on the small but hitherto self-sustaining community as railway after railway started running through the area. Other facilities unwanted by white communities—a prison, slaughterhouse, an infectious disease hospital, and depository for fecal waste—were located in and around Africville.

Systemic abuse and neglect

Racial inequality kept Africville in an impoverished state. Job opportunities were mostly limited to working as seamen, porters or domestic workers. Education was severely deficient amongst Africville residents, who only had four boys and one girl reach the 10th grade out of 140 children that ever registered in the school. Despite paying city taxes, the residents of Africville went without the basic amenities other towns enjoyed such as proper roads, electricity, health services, or sewage. Even running water was not made av ailable; residents of Africville had to rely on an assortment of wells, the water from which required boiling before drinking or cooking.

While other parts of the City of Halifax, which had amalgamated Africville, was receiving investments for modernization efforts, the racially isolated community of Africville was left to ruin. The final result of 150 years of unequal opportunity, municipal neglect and institutionalized racism was Africville being literally reduced to a slum; a label it officially gained in 1958 after Halifax moved the town dump to the area. In 1962, Halifax City Council decided to expropriate the land and remove the “blighted housing and dilapidated structures” in the interest of “urban renewal.”

Eviction and destruction

Between 1964 and 1967, residents were removed and placed in public housing projects; those who were previously homeowners became renters.

 Despite their relocation, Africvillians still faced the same problems of inequality and poverty. Social programs that had previously been promised never materialized. The City of Halifax lent their assistance to the people of Africville in such a manner that perfectly illustrates the attitude with which City Hall regarded them: they moved the residents of Africville with the city’s dump trucks.

The Africville community was razed to the ground. The houses, school, and the Seaview United Baptist Church—which played an integral role in the social life of the community—were bulldozed to make way for development of the north shore of the Bedford Basin and the A. Murray MacKay Bridge, which crosses the Halifax harbour.

Rear view of Seaview African United Baptist Church, with Africville houses and laundry flapping in the breeze in the foreground.

Due to the controversy surrounding the events, commercial development did not take place and the waterfront was left intact. In the 1980s, Halifax created Seaview Memorial Park on the old Africville site, which was declared a national historic site in 2002.

Reaction to the apology

Reactions to the apology from former residents and their descendants have been mixed. Most were optimistic and hopeful for the future; former Africville resident Brenda Steed-Ross, who was evicted along with her parents and her infant daughter when she was 18, said she feels “we’re moving forward, not backward.” Rev. Rhonda Britten, a leader within the Black community in Nova Scotia, welcomed the settlement, saying “I know that there are some among us who are wounded, and some among us who bear those scars. But, in spite of all of that, the victory has been won.” Rev. Rhonda Y. Britton, Cornwallis Street Baptist Church—”Wha’d Ya Expect?”

However, not everyone shared Rev. Britten’s optimism. According to a report from CBC News, while most of the crowd offered cheers, there were others voicing dissent, shouting: “Not enough.” Some of the descendants of Africville claimed the settlement was illegal because the Africville Genealogy Society (AGS) didn’t have the right to negotiate on their behalf. One criticism of the agreement is that there is no provision for individual compensation. Eddie Carvey, whose brother Irvine is president of AGS, has been actively raising the issue and protesting since 1994. Along with individual reparations (a word the Canadian press has decidedly avoided using, which I will not), Carvey is also seeking a public inquiry and for the city to return ownership of Africville to its former residents and descendants.

There are apologies and there are apologies

In the interest of reconciliation and restorative justice, formal apologies are more than just gestures; they are vital to building trust between those who have been harmed and those who committed the harm (including the descendants of both sides). They are not to be confused with the actual work to be done to achieve reconciliation and restorative justice, but they are important to begin with. After all, if you can’t start with “I’m sorry,” then what else can you really say that will have any meaning?

For an apology to be a catalyst, it needs to have weight; for an apology to have any weight, it needs to be sincere. But, what if it is incomplete? I do not wish to challenge the sincerity of anyone involved, but I do want to draw attention to the history I have outlined above and the content of the apology below. I want to ask: is it complete?

On behalf of the Halifax Regional Municipality, I apologize to the former Africville residents and their descendants for what they have endured for almost 50 years, ever since the loss of their community that had stood on the shores of Bedford Basin for more than 150 years.

You lost your houses, your church, all of the places where you gathered with family and friends to mark the milestones of your lives.

For all that, we apologize.

We apologize to the community elders, including those who did not live to see this day, for the pain and loss of dignity you experienced.

We apologize to the generations who followed, for the deep wounds you have inherited and the way your lives were disrupted by the disappearance of your community.

We apologize for the heartache experienced at the loss of the Seaview United Baptist Church, the spiritual heart of the community, removed in the middle of the night. We acknowledge the tremendous importance the church had, both for the congregation and the community as a whole.

We realize words cannot undo what has been done, but we are profoundly sorry and apologize to all the former residents and their descendants.

The repercussions of what happened in Africville linger to this day. They haunt us in the form of lost opportunities for young people who were never nurtured in the rich traditions, culture and heritage of Africville.

They play out in lingering feelings of hurt and distrust, emotions that this municipality continues to work hard with the African Nova Scotian community to overcome.

For all the distressing consequences, we apologize.

Our history cannot be rewritten but, thankfully, the future is a blank page and, starting today, we hold the pen with which we can write a shared tomorrow.

It is in that spirit of respect and reconciliation that we ask your forgiveness.

Source: HalifaxAfricvilleApology

Amongst the recognition that people have suffered and continue to suffer due to wrongdoing on the part of the city council, what are the reasons being given in the formal apology? They acknowledge loss of their houses, loss of their church, and that repercussions “linger to this day”—and this is important to acknowledge. Their loss is tremendous and it is real, and the repercussions continue to manifest 50 years later. But two parts of the apology trouble me, leading me to believe that the greatest loss has been widely overlooked.

For what, exactly?

When they “apologize to the generations who followed” and lament the “lost opportunities for young people who were never nurtured in the rich traditions, culture and heritage of Africville,” flags go up. First question: the generations who followed what? The evictions and bulldozing of homes? Second question: which opportunities do Mayor Kelly, Halifax Regional Council and Halifax Regional Municipality think the young people living in Africville have lost? Their use of the words “nurtured” and “rich” have a certain ironic flair considering   Africville was in shambles, with no health services, sewage or running water. Why no apology for that?

Failure by design

On April 26, 1965, the Mail-Star newspaper quoted the Welfare Director saying “the City has fallen down on its responsibility to Africville.

Providing proper water and sewerage [sic] facilities for these people, when needed, would have enabled them to give as good an account of themselves as any other families in the area and would make relocation unnecessary.” It is important to keep in mind that Africville becoming a slum was not the making of its residents. External forces played an active role in forcing the community onto a path to destruction.

The high level of poverty and low levels of education were perpetuated by racism towards the African-Canadian community. Africville residents paid city taxes but were deprived of the basics that other communities enjoyed, which speaks to institutionalized racism. The slaughterhouse, infectious disease hospital and fecal waste depository were placed in the Africville area because white communities didn’t want them in theirs—and that speaks to environmental racism.

From the broken promises of the Crown to the city dump being placed at its doorstep, Africville was practically doomed from the beginning. Despite the unfair hardship its residents were subjected to, they still bonded together and made for themselves a community. When that community finally became an eyesore or an inconvenience—depending whose story you believe—to the Halifax city council, they capriciously tore it asunder.

I bring up the inconvenience aspect because there are a few facts that have slipped by many of the newspaper articles writing about the razing of Africville. The Civic Planning Commission recommended the removal of the residents of Africville to make way for development of a residential, park and shopping centre complex as early as 1945. Two years after that, the Halifax City Council approved the designation of Africville as industrial land. In 1948, the Council approved the borrowing of funds in order to provide water and sewer services, but these services were never installed—the residents were left to use well water that became contaminated by the railway and surrounding industrial waste.

Africville was a Black neighbourhood on waterfront property, and at least 17 years before the evictions started, the city of Halifax was looking to oust its residents and usurp their land. The Council’s avarice and willful disregard for the people of Africville are not at all, in my opinion, addressed in the words or spirit of this apology. It is very hard to work on restorative justice when the full weight of the offence has not been accounted.

A Canadian pathology

It’s not all that shocking that even while issuing a formal apology as an act towards reconciliation, a government body would avoid the larger and much uglier issues at the very heart of what it is they are apologizing for.

It’s also not surprising that the government kept “individual compensation” off the table, because Canada doesn’t like “the R-word” any more than the US does. For Canada, the subject is even more intractable because a discussion about reparations can’t happen without a discussion about slavery, and we as a country do our best to avoid that topic altogether—unless it’s about slavery in the US and how Canada was part of the underground railroad; we love to talk about that slavery.

In the end, the apology as it stands is still a sign of modest progress. Many claim it isn’t enough, and I agree with them. The $3 million towards reconstruction of the Seaview United Baptist Church, the 2.5 acres of land to be provided to the Africville Heritage Trust Board, and the establishment of an African-Nova Scotian Affairs function within HRM is still a fair start, but the ball really needs to keep rolling.

Overview of Africville

 As a recent (though extremely rare) crossburning in Poplar Grove—a town about 65 km (40 mi) northwest from the Africville site—demonstrates, the province of Nova Scotia is still not without its own racial problems—even within the HRM itself.

I’m glad that Brenda Steed-Ross and others are finding some peace from the apology and agreement. I hope Eddie Carvey gets the public inquiry he is looking for. I also hope Mayor Kelly and the Halifax City Council wake up and realize that it is more than the “repercussions of what happened in Africville” that “linger to this day.” The deeper issues at the heart of the Africville affair—racism, both systemic and environmental—are still haunting them. And unless they decide to seriously address these issues, there will be no lessons learned from Africville.

Source: PastDeniedAfricville

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Mike Barber is an independent filmmaker with a particular interest in issues surrounding social justice. He is currently directing A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada, a feature documentary exploring how a false sense of history—both taught in the classroom and repeated throughout the national historical narrative—impinges on the present. It examines how 200 years of institutional slavery during Canada’s formation has been kept out of Canadian classrooms, textbooks and social consciousness. He is currently based in Toronto, Ontario.

Source: PastDenied

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Capitalism and the Ideal State: Marcus Garvey  / Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism (Du Bois)  / Economic Emancipation of Africa

Liberty and Empire  /  Money is Speech   /  On Capitalism: Noam Chomsky

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Africville deal nets millions

 Bob Brooks’ Photographic Portrait of Africville in the 1960s

Africville Memorial Project: Significant Dates  /  Africville Timeline

Roots of Alientation  / The Early 20th Century 1962—A Pivitol Year

  Ramp Up for Tear Dow   Settled Estates  /  Tear Down and After Effects

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From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia

By Tambay, on March 16th, 2011

Directed by Sylvia Hamilton, the 30-minute film takes a look at the lives of a group of black students in their predominantly white high school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the daily reminders of racism they face, ranging from abuse, to exclusion.They work to establish a Cultural Awareness Youth Group, a vehicle for building pride and self-esteem through educational and cultural programs. With help from mentors, they discover the richness of their heritage and learn some of the ways they can begin to affect change.

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The Hanging of Angelique

The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal

By Afua Cooper

Cooper’s telling of Angélique’s story is a series of intricate movements between historical context and the life of Angélique herself. Though details are occasionally repeated, Cooper’s attempt to explain Angélique, her time, and her place is largely successful. There are as many questions as there are answers about Angélique, including the question of whether or not she set the fire that devastated the city, and this part of what makes the story so compelling and important. After Angélique was tried, the prosecutor appealed the vicious sentence. This was a peculiar move (as Cooper notes: “It was he, as king’s prosecutor, who had diligently and determinedly amassed the evidence against Angélique”) but it won Angélique a new sentence: torture and then death by hanging.

Under the torture, Angélique confessed. Cooper and Clarke both believe Angélique was guilty. Some portrayals, fictional and factual, of Angélique have attributed her actions to love, describing the arson as an act that would enable her to run off with her lover. Cooper asserts that this storytelling technique diminishes Angélique:

By emphasizing love as Angelique’s primary motive, these writers not only rob her of the agency that she exhibited in her quest for liberty, they also diminish the violence inherent in slavery. For them, Angelique did not flee because she found her enslavement humiliating, awful, and suffocating; she fled because she was ‘in love.’ If we take this reasoning one step further, it is easy to conclude that slavery could not have been so bad. I believe that the ‘in love’ thesis advanced by these authors speaks to their unease with the race, gender, and power relations intrinsic to slavery.

It is an uneasiness that seems to permeate Canadian history, and Cooper is to be credited for drawing attention to it, for digging it out of history’s landfill. The Hanging of Angélique is a book with an edge, an agenda, and that is to draw attention to a neglected area of Canada’s past.

In my engagement with African Canadian history, I have come to realize that Black history has less to do with Black people and more with White pride. If Black history narratives make Whites feel good, it is allowed to surface; if not, it is suppressed or buried. That is why slavery has been erased from the collective unconsciousness. It is about an ignoble and unsavoury past, and because it cast Whites in a “bad” light, they as chroniclers of the country’s past, creators and keepers of its traditions and myths, banished this past into the dustbins of history.

The Hanging of Angélique can’t give back what was taken from Angélique—her name, her freedom—but it can demand that we, at least retroactively, bear witness. That we see her for what she is, her life for what it was, and our country for its moments of shame, as well as pride. We can’t give Angélique her name, but we can name what happened to her and make her part of our collective memory. Even if remembering her took 270 years.—BlogCritics

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Lies My Teacher Told Me

Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

By James W. Loewen

Winner of the American Book Award and the Oliver C. Cox Anti-Racism Award of The American Sociological Association—Americans have lost touch with their history, and in Lies My Teacher Told Me Professor James Loewen shows why. After surveying eighteen leading high school American history texts, he has concluded that not one does a decent job of making history interesting or memorable. Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.

In this revised edition, packed with updated material, Loewen explores how historical myths continue to be perpetuated in today’s climate and adds an eye-opening chapter on the lies surrounding 9/11 and the Iraq War. From the truth about Columbus’s historic voyages to an honest evaluation of our national leaders, Loewen revives our history, restoring the vitality and relevance it truly possesses. Thought provoking, nonpartisan, and often shocking, Loewen unveils the real America in this iconoclastic classic beloved by high school teachers, history buffs, and enlightened citizens across the country.

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The Oriental Question

Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-41

By Patricia E. Roy

The sequel to her 1989 groundbreaking work, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914, Patricia E. Roy’s latest book, The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-41 continues her study into why British Columbians—and many Canadians from outside the province—were historically so opposed to Asian immigration. Drawing on contemporary press and government reports, as well as the correspondence and memoirs of individuals, Roy shows how, from 1914 to 1941, British Columbians consolidated a “white man’s province” by securing a virtual end to Asian immigration and placing stringent legal restrictions on Asian competition in the major industries of lumber and fishing.

While its emphasis is on political action and politicians, the book also examines the popular pressure for such practices and gives some attention to the reactions of those most affected: the province’s Chinese and Japanese residents. The Oriental Question is a critical investigation of a troubling period in Canadian history. It will be of vital interest to scholars of British Columbian and Canadian history and politics, Asian studies, diaspora, ethnicity, and immigration.

posted 3 January 2011

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