Online edition of Shunpiking
 

PEOPLE'S ODYSSEY

 

On Reparations

By Isaac Saney

We initiated our Black History/African Heritage Supplement in 1997 as our response to the well-known events at Cole Harbour High School and the promotion of racism amongst high school youth and the community in Nova Scotia.

We are producing our 6th annual supplement in a time of uncertainty and danger. Great trepidation grips the world. The seeds of future world conflict and conflagration have been sown; a train of events – whose ultimate outcomes, consequences, and human toll remain unpredictable and incalculable – has been set in motion.

This time is marked by an assault by the ruling circles on rights that were won in the crucible of intense struggles waged by oppressed peoples and workers: the legacy of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and labour movements is being eliminated. A critical aspect of this legacy is the recognition that accounts have to be rendered and settled with the past, that fundamental norms of justice and morality require redress of historical wrongs.

Another way of putting this same proposition is to affirm that the present is shaped by the past and that it is impossible to understand the contemporary world without explicating what has gone before. The presentation and rendering of history is critical to the search for solutions to the problems that confront Nova Scotia, Canada and the world. While this may seem to be a simple truism, a self-evident truth that requires no repetition, it is precisely this stand that is under attack. There is a concerted effort to paint the 21st century – particularly the process of "globalization" – as a complete break with all that has gone before. "Globalization" is not only portrayed as inevitable and ineluctable but as a fundamental rupture with past: a rupture so profound and definitive leading to the implication that history is irrelevant and useless as a means by which to understand the onrushing future. History has lost any value.

What is at stake is the imperative to maintain an organized collective memory. We do need to break with the past and create a new basis for society – establishing new arrangements commensurate with modern times – but we can only accomplish this by understanding the past as a means by which to transform the present. The world is beset with problems and challenges that are in many ways unique to the present phase of global historical development, yet we do not consider this period to be detached form the past. The present and ever onrushing future are rooted in and bear undeniable historical birthmarks and stains.

Within this context, the historic United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Other Related Intolerance (unwcar) was convened in Durban, South Africa in August 2001. The UN Conference was preceded by the Racism and the Black World Response International Symposium in Halifax. We are reproducing the speech delivered by President Fidel Castro of Cuba and the intervention by the Africville Geneological Society at the unwcar, and the keynote address given by Michelle Williams in Halifax. At the centre of their presentations is a keen understanding of history, namely the role of slavery and colonialism in making and shaping the world we inhabit today. The depredations, injustices and inequalities that flow from this history provide both the legal and moral grounds that establish the necessity for reparations.

At shunpiking magazine we have explored the significant contribution of Black labour to the economic development of Nova Scotia. The use of slave labour and the reduction of the Black Loyalists and Black Refugee populations to a pool of cheap workers was crucial in building the infrastructure of this province. The presence of African Nova Scotians in this province is neither accidental or purely conjectural. As we noted, slavery – the existence of which the Canadian government denies at every international forum – established the precedent for exploiting African Nova Scotians as a readily available source of cheap labour.

The demand for and the necessity for the services of Black tradesmen was clearly articulated by the provincial ruling circles in relation to the Black Loyalists and the Black Refugees, the foundation of the traditional Black communities, who migrated to Nova Scotia in the 1782-84 and 1813-16 periods respectively. Alexander Howe, a prominent member of the legislative Assembly, described the Black Loyalists as "the principal source of labour and improvement." Referring to the Black Refugees, T. Chamberlain, another legislature member, stated that that the new Black migrants

"would afford assistance to us towards repairing roads, but likewise furnish us with the labourers of whom we stand too much in need to make any tolerable progress in our improvement."

Both the Black Loyalists and the Black Refugees were lured to Nova Scotia with promises of land and economic security. Very few received land and, when they did, it was of much smaller acreage than promised. Indeed, the land granted was of inferior quality to the land given to White Loyalists: non-arable, covered with shrubs and stones. Using delays and outright chicanery, the colonial administration legally swindled the Black migrants out of receiving grants and land. This ensured that the Black population was unable to achieve economic security and independence.

The inability to acquire a viable land base maintained African Nova Scotians as a cheap and causal pool labour pool – third class citizens – forced into competing at the lower end of the labour market.

This history profoundly stamped the subsequent trajectory of Black Nova Scotia. The results have been marginalization and disenfranchisement, epitomized by the Africville dispossession. The disparity of wealth and political power between social groups and classes is not an accidental phenomenon. Nor has the Canadian state been a neutral actor or arbiter. It has had very definite aims, as illustrated by the statements of Howe and Chamberlain – to create and reinforce the role as cheap labour and to ghettoize the community within the polity. This policy continues today.

The Black community has not remained passive but has actively fought efforts to push and keep it at the margins of society. It is from this struggle to assert its rights and its right-to-be that the call and demand for reparations is raised.

This demand exposes the unjust nature of the entire economic and political system. For the exploitation and marginalization of the Black population is part and parcel of the generalized exploitation and marginalization of the entire society: embodied in the experiences of the Mi’kmaq, Acadians, the Irish navies, the Highland and Island Gaels, Cape Breton workers, and so forth.

The victory of the Black community on the issue of reparations will be a victory for all. Black emancipation and the liberation of the entire society are inextricably bound together.


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