Our Philosophy

Once again the issue of Black History is before us. And, once again, shunpiking magazine is pleased to explore the rich heritage of the Black Nova Scotian community. In 1997 we launched a Black History supplement that was innovative; it attempted to paint the broad sweep of historical forces that not only shape the Black community but bind it within Nova Scotian, Canadian and world history. Two poignant examples: Can you truly understand or appreciate the history of the Black Loyalists or the Black refugees without the contexts of the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars respectively?

Vase Once again the issue of Black History is before us. And, once again, shunpiking magazine is pleased to explore the rich heritage of the Black Nova Scotian community. In 1997 we launched a Black History supplement that was innovative; it attempted to paint the broad sweep of historical forces that not only shape the Black community but bind it within Nova Scotian, Canadian and world history. Two poignant examples: Can you truly understand or appreciate the history of the Black Loyalists or the Black refugees without the contexts of the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars respectively?

We were delighted and humbled by the overwhelming, positive response and continued demand for bulk copies of this supplement by families, educators and youth. In numerous discussions - whether in Halifax, Dartmouth, Cheticamp, Windsor, Toronto, New England, Trinidad and Tobago or Cuba - it was readily apparent that people were drawn to the underlying philosophical framework. Consequently, we have decided to preface our historical chronology this year, which itself has been revised and expanded, by discussing with our readers the philosophy, principles and ethics that guide this work.

Our continued goal is not to treat the history of the African Nova Scotian community as some artifact to be tacked on as someone's whim or afterthought. Our project was originally conceived as a counter to what we saw as the trivialization and marginalization of a people's history: reducing it to a few choice vignettes and events unconnected from the flow of real history. In order to gain a solid understanding of any segment of history, it is necessary to provide interpretation instead of a steady string of "happenings".

Until the 1950s, schools themselves were segregated and our communities faced quasi-apartheid. Through to the 1970s, our history was largely negated. But in the past decade and a half, the consciousness of "African Heritage" by official as well as unofficial agencies and circles is quite remarkable. While this recognition is due to the consistent and constant struggle of the Black communities and their organizations, there is, yet a danger: the same racial distortions may be reproduced in a different form. The reduction of the experience of a people to a series of vignettes and stories, however well choreographed, illustrated and written, is in itself the mangling of history. It serves to use history to perpetuate racism in the guise of "anti-racism". The outcome can only be further efforts to marginalize people from participation in political/social/cultural concerns that affect the entire society and the body politic.

Melvile Island
Indeed, it is our contention that Black history cannot be understood in separation and isolation from the panorama of the Maritimes. While the Black community has its own dynamics and struggles, they are part of the rhythm of the overall struggles of the province and the region. The specificity of the exploitation and oppression of the Black community is a reflection of the overall processes that worked against the First Nations, Acadians, the Gaels and the majority of the labouring population - different in form and degree but not in aim and content. The obvious corollary is that Nova Scotian history in its entirety cannot be understood unless the history of Black Nova Scotia is treated as a fundamental component. This supplement maintains this approach and adopts the same format as 1997, in lieu of a completely new supplement. As we stressed last year, much of our history is yet to be told or explored. However, we hope that this attempt to provide an outline or dateline will serve to raise people's consciousness, stimulate discussion and encourage sound and active historical research and writing.

If our philosophy can be summed up, then, it is the belief that people are the makers of their history and culture, not mere clay in the hands of "systems" and their diplomaed historians and ideologists. We wish to strip of mystery, to demystify, the historical process, to understand our collective past.

The Black communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are of very long standing, dating back to the dawn of European colonization in the 1600s. Through all of history's twists and turns over the last almost 400 years, these communities have remained integral to the development of life and society throughout the Maritimes, and especially Nova Scotia.

The Black community remains a vital part of Nova Scotian and Canadian life. Not only has the chronic unemployment and isolation suffered by African Nova Scotian communities been and remained part of the same crisis afflicting the entire region but, from every aspect, its historical experience is inseparable from the Nova Scotian tapestry. In the teeth of racism and provocations of every kind, aimed at placing and keeping them on society's margins, Black Nova Scotians have built their own communities, participated in building the surrounding community, forged long links and sunk deep roots throughout Canadian society. This is exactly where the Black communities can be found - not on society's margins but operating as part and parcel of the everyday life of the wider community.

Slavery's peculiar legacy

St. Maurice of Crusades.jpgEuropeans arrived as settlers under the direction of a colonial political system and economy, operating at the mercy of powers and forces based elsewhere. For people of African descent, however, there was one unique circumstance. This was the legacy of slavery, which would remain entrenched in the racist attitudes and practices that already permeated the culture and outlook of Nova Scotia's ruling cliques from earliest colonial times. This was to have profound and on-going consequences.

In 1997, large-scale celebrations were held in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the voyage of Giovanni Caboto. These celebrations were divorced from the impact of his voyages on the First Nations. But what was the motive of the voyage? Pure discovery? Caboto sailed from Bristol, a port notorious for its strategic role in the Atlantic slave trade. Moreover, Caboto represented the trading, financial and merchant shipping houses - such as Lloyds of England and Barclays Bank - that amassed their wealth from the slave trade. The cod from the banks that Caboto "discovered" supplied dried salt cod - popularly known as salt fish in the Caribbean, and eaten to this day - as the main source of cheap protein for the enslaved African population in the Caribbean.

With the rise of the trans-Atlantic commercial traffic in African flesh during the 1500s, a Eurocentric outlook emerged that looked down upon all persons of African descent as subhuman: a people without history, destined for servitude. However, before the European slave trade emerged, there existed no universal or uniform racist ideology. The historical evidence is overwhelmingly clear. Before the advent of the slave trade, Europeans had positive attitudes towards Africa and Africans. In the art of ancient Greece, people of African descent were often portrayed in positions of power and authority. This is also seen in the art of the Renaissance - Reubens and Rembrandt being prominent exemplars - where Africans are treated with respect and honour. The African contribution to the treasury of world history and culture was universally recognized as far back as the civilization of ancient Egypt, from which early Greece would later borrow or adapt many philosophic and artistic concepts.

The emergence of racism can historically be linked to the rise of capitalism as the dominant socio-economic system on the world stage. It became a smokescreen which hid the true dynamics and control of the productive forces; used not just to justify the bondage and exploitation of African peoples but also to deflect the struggles of European workers into the cul-de-sac of national chauvinism.

Slavery is an ancient institution. For most of world history slavery was not a condition associated with skin colour. The Irish were bought and sold as slaves in English markets in the Middle Ages. Indeed, as Eric Williams notes in his seminal work, Capitalism and Slavery, the first people bought and sold as slaves in the West Indies were the Irish. But the biological concept of race - the division of the human species into "biological distinct categories" where phenotypical characteristics (especially skin colour) is an identifier - is a 19th century construct, developed to justify African bondage and - later - the imperialist project. Racism became a fundamental element of economic exploitation. Thus, before the advent of the mass enslavement of Africans to serve burgeoning European economies, racism as a global historical phenomena - inhering at all levels of society - did not exist. History gives one dominating answer for its emergence: the Atlantic slave trade.

People of African descent were brought to Nova Scotia starting in the 17th century, from the earliest days of French settlement, as slaves. More Black slaves were brought after British colonization began in 1749. (There were still some Blacks arriving in Nova Scotia as slaves even after 1833, when slavery was officially banned throughout the British Empire). The existence of slavery in the British colony of Nova Scotia, though on a small scale, seeded the political, economic, social and cultural structures and established patterns and precedents that would play a major role in shaping the experiences of the African Nova Scotian influxes to follow.

During the American War of Independence, the British, in an effort to undermine the rebelling colonists, offered the Black population land, freedom and security if they joined the British cause. However, the victory of the American colonists forced the British to re-organize their entire operation in North America and the Caribbean. So, like many of the other original settlers of European descent, people of African descent were brought to Nova Scotia by the demands of the colonial system.

This is how the ranks of the ancestors of today's Black communities came to include free men and women (the Black Loyalists), as well as the slaves of American white Loyalist settlers.

With modifications allowing for a local legislature, this colonial system evolved into the political order that would run the separate colonies of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario) up to Confederation.

Until the late-1830s, rule in Nova Scotia was exercised by a so-called "Committee of 12."

History books obfuscate the development of "responsible government" in Nova Scotia and Canada during the mid-1800s, downplaying the social upheaval that ushered in this period.

The years 1837-38 saw an armed uprising and the stuggle of the people of Upper and Lower Canada to end British colonial rule and win democratic freedoms. These struggles were inspired by the same revolutionary fervour which swept Europe in 1830 and again in 1848. An old social order was in the process of decay and elimination, while a new one was being born. Alongside this new system arose its spokespersons and representatives. The feudal order was giving way to the new class of merchants and industrialists. This transition expressed itself politically in a number of ways. In France and America the demands for liberation, fraternity and equality were raised, while royality and the landed aristocracy were mercilessly attacked. In the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada this sentiment was manifested in demands for parliamentary democracy and responsible government.

Although the movement enjoyed the support of the broad masses of people, its leadership lay in the hands of the commercial, industrial and professional middle class of that time: an emerging bourgeois class. Their key demand was the establishment of domestic industry and manufacturing unfettered by British restrictions and controls. British colonial policy held Canada in its grip. Certain industries were banned in Canada lest they pose a competitive threat to those in the "mother country". All but British ships were prohibited from transporting certain goods. Imports from Britain carried high prices, while exports commanded substantially lower ones.

The tight economic control exercised by the British colonialists and their local oligarchy was reflected in and accompanied by a repressive political set-up which, despite an elected assembly, ensured that political control resided in an unelected legislative council, which appointed a governor answerable only to Britain.

It is therefore not suprising that the rising industrial class expressed its interests in the political call for responsible government.
The aftermath of the rebellion showed that it was no small affair in Canadian history. More than 2000 people were arrested and jailed, charged with treason and a variety of other crimes. Thirty two were executed and 150 deported to Australia and Tasmania.

Many of the aims of the rebellion - representative and responsible government, local control of finances, an end to the fetters of colonial and mercantilist policies - were ultimately achieved. However, the democratic aspirations of the people for greater and more thorough-going change were frustrated by the commercial and industrial classes that retained power.

Thus the extreme marginalization of the Mi'kmaq and African Nova Scotians from the political process is a manifestation of the disenfranchisement of the body politic.

What exactly was this "responsible" government? What and to whom was it responsible? The First Nations? The Acadians? Black Nova Scotians? The labouring population which was also disenfranchised?

To whom were they responsible?! Property holders who controlled the franchise. Moreover, behind this facade of local authority, English trading houses and merchant banks in tandem with the local ruling circles increased their dictate over the population in Nova Scotia and the other colonies.

Of course, these colonies were not built in a day. Nova Scotia before Confederation was built on the backs of cheap labour, including African, as well as Irish and Scottish. The supply and conditions of this labour force was milked by manipulation, from Halifax and London - a process continually interrupted by resistance, before and after Confederation (see page 9).

After Confederation, with the licencing of immigration of other peoples from other parts of the world elsewhere throughout Canada, many of these same processes would later be reapplied.

Since Confederation and throughout the present century, Canadian society has progressed to the measure that it has shed its colonial vestiges.

Ethnic pigeons in the multicultural mosaic?!

Today, in the cultural sphere, there are concerted efforts to divide up national minorities. Thus, we are forced to contemplate whether the federal government's policy of "multiculturalism" advances real understanding or drives wedges amongst people.

While those possessing power and privilege attempt to maintain the status quo by continuing the age-old divide-and-rule strategy, entire communities have continued to resist being shoved to society's margins.

In response to mass immigration from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia during the 1960s, the Canadian federal government adopted "new" policies under the rubric of "multiculturalism" while terms such as "visible minorities" - distinguished by "novel and distinctive features" - became official, institutionalized and introduced into the vocabulary of everyday life. The basic approach adopted was based on "race" - a distinctly racist splintering of the Canadian people, who are today described as belonging to either a so-called founding nation or an Aboriginal people. Why is a Black from Jamaica not seen as an ethnic Jamaican and a Black from Trinidad as an ethnic Trinidadian and a Black from Halifax as a Haligonian? Why is society now divided between whites and Blacks on the one hand, and between so-called founding nations and ethnics, on the other, and Aboriginals as yet another category?

At shunpiking magazine, our interest is the unity of peoples and communities, as well as the development of a healthy, vibrant Canadian identity.

Our emphasis is on exploration and discovery. When we launch exploration of any part of the environment - whether natural, social, cultural or historical - it is useful to provide a map. That map could take conventional cartographic form, or be a series of snapshots. To explore and discover the living Black community, we have assembled a series of snapshots "in time" - an historical chronology. At the same time, this map establishes a framework for launching further explorations.

To convey a sense of the broad sweep of historical forces shaping the Black community, to make that framework visible, many elements usually consigned to the background have been consciously brought to the fore. As a result, in many cases, individuals do not appear front and centre. Here we are looking at the deeper structure underpinning the biographical component of history.

Particular individuals have played critical roles at critical times and have left an indelible mark on the life and history of this province. From Richard Preston to Portia White and Bucky Adams, to Dr. Carrie Best, Pearleen Oliver and Delmore "Buddy" Daye, significant contributions were made to Black Nova Scotian religious and professional life, political organization, education and culture. These contributions have also been integral to the development of society overall. The historic significance of these contributions really stands out, however, when the surrounding conditions are seen for what they were.

People of flesh and blood make history, but never under conditions of their own choosing, and always within conditions transmitted from the past.

However, new struggles cannot draw their poetry exclusively from the past, but also from the terrain of the emerging future. New struggles cannot begin with themselves before they have stripped off all superstition in regard to the past.

Isaac Saney teaches in the Transition Year Program, Dalhousie University, lectures in International Development Studies Program at Dalhousie and St. Mary's Universities and has worked as a curriculum developer, Nova Scotia Department of Education. With files from Gary Zatzman.

Comments to : shunpike@shunpiking.org
Copyright New Media Services Inc. 2004. The views expressed herein are the writers' own and do not necessarily reflect those of shunpiking magazine or New Media Publications.