black activists were miffed re-cently when the TV show Counterspin featured a program on slave reparations that focused almost exclusively on the U.S. Pre-interviewed for the show but not invited to the taping, lawyer Charles Roach immediately sent out a missive on his e-mail list of movers and shakers complaining that producers overlooked the issue of compensation here and Canada's own 200 years of slavery.It was one of those defining moments that are getting increasingly common as reparations talk gears up locally, a consequence of the momentum around the upcoming UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia And Related Intolerance (WCAR) slated for Durban, South Africa, on August 31.
Black NGOs around the world are committed to making sure discussion of the three Rs -- reparations, remedies, redress -- makes a big splash at the conference. And Canadian groups are right there with them.
"We have an opportunity to use this forum to make some strategic interventions," says Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, head of the African Canadian Coalition Against Racism (ACAR), a new organization formed with the conference in mind and composed of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, the Jamaican-Canadian Association and the Congress of Black Women of Canada, among others.
The long list of grievances African- Canadian lobbyists say needs to be addressed at the WCAR includes compensation for the slavery that existed in Upper and Lower Canada until the early 1800s and its racist fallout, like the promises made to many former slaves of good land that they never received. The basis for discussions around reparations carries right through to the mid-1960s, when segregated schooling was still in vogue in Essex County near Windsor.***Canadians have always been proud of the underground railroad that ferried slaves from our southern neighbour to freedom north of the 49th parallel. So it may come as a shock to many that black historians believe black servitude and slavery literally formed the backbone of Canada's history and left a 20th-century legacy as devastating as that in the States.
Blacks and First Nations peoples were enslaved in New France (Canada), which practised slavery under "provisional approval" until 1709, when it received full approval by France. More than one-third of the legislators in the first Parliament of Upper Canada were slave owners. In fact, during the 16th and 17th centuries in Upper Canada, slavery was widespread. Many of the colony's prominent British families, among them the Jarvises (for whom a major Toronto street is named), owned slaves even after the first governor of Upper Canada, Lord Simcoe, outlawed the slave trade in 1797.
Says Clarence Munford, professor emeritus in the University of Guelph's history department and author of Race And Reparations, "There is no moral or qualitative difference between the historical past for Upper and Lower Canada in comparison to the northern and northeastern U.S. We're dealing with a difference of quantity rather than quality.'
Grace-Edward Galabuzi, who penned Canada's Creeping Economic Apartheid for the Centre for Social Justice, argues that the growing economic divide in Canada's black communities has its roots in slavery, coupled with white-only immigration policies.
"The underground railroad is a part of the record, which Canada should be proud of. But there's also a large record that Canada should not be proud of. For example, there's the story of that slave girl Marie-Joseph Angelique who set fire to her mistress's house because she wanted to escape. She was hung in downtown Montreal in the 1700s, bringing attention to the harsh conditions that slaves in Canada faced."
Ken Alexander, co-author of Towards Freedom: The African Canadian Experience, says scant attention has been paid to the mass exodus of blacks who escaped out of Canada back into U.S. border states after the Civil War and Reconstruction."If you look at Canadian history, the reasons given are cold weather, reunification with family -- that's largely a lot of horseshit. The fact of the matter is, Reconstruction in America brought forward great hope for blacks. And Canada became very chilly about its black communities and did nothing to stem the tide."
While some Canadians wait for the day when racial discrimination will evaporate by virtue of our shifting demographics, a critical mass of African Canadians outside Ontario are following the African American lead and assembling a body of data that they hope will help the reparations cause.
In Nova Scotia, where the economic inequalities of today can be traced directly to past historic actions, professor Agnes Calliste of St. Francis Xavier University's department of sociology has compiled some crucial research on the mistreatment of black loyalists and on the Africville situation. (In the 1960s, the small black Africville settlement within Halifax was uprooted and homes were demolished in the name of urban renewal and integration.)
"We can still see the effects of slavery today very clearly in Nova Scotia. The black loyalists who fought with the British side in the American Revolution were promised freedom and land, but many of them did not get land. Some got land in isolated areas, and if you look at the Nova Scotian black communities today, you can see that some of them don't even have paved roads."
As a consequence,The Africville Genealogical Society, she says, has been asking local governments for redress. Calliste also slips into our convo that as early as 1784, discrimination against black workers who objected to earning a quarter of the wages of their white counterparts led to racial riots in the towns of Shelbourne and Birchtown in Nova Scotia and to the exodus of over 1,200 blacks to Sierra Leone.
In the face of these hard, cold documented facts, many wonder why the feds are taking such an ambivalent attitude toward reparations. There's a whole tide of global incidents suggesting that the idea of materially and morally rectifying past crimes against humanity is not so crazy after all -- Holocaust victims, for example, made successful claims against German and Swiss firms in the name of Jewish victims of Nazi oppression.
But Canada, like the U.S., is standing firm. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that controversial calls for slavery reparations could "derail" the upcoming WCAR and threaten U.S. participation.
Canada's domestic reparations ruckus started taking shape during the UN regional meeting of the Americas that took place in Santiago, Chile, in December 2000. There, on resolutions calling for the provision of remedies, recourse, redress (compensation) for victims of human rights abuses, Canada and the U.S. were the lone nations (out of 34) that refused to sign off on documents that could force governments to explore fiscal options to repair damage to afflicted communities.
At preparatory conferences for the WCAR meeting, the Canadian delegation (which includes folks like Hedy Fry, secretary of state for multiculturalism) has pronounced that "in Canada, we have taken a multi-faceted approach to the issues of remedies and redress and do not believe that granting financial compensation for historical action is appropriate."
Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, who attended prep conferences, was taken aback at Canada's refusal to support the global reparations movement.
"From a financial and monetary perspective, it's a hot and contentious issue at WCAR, because Canada has joined with the western European group and the U.S. in refusing to support the issue of reparations.'
Maybe the feds are trying to avoid another Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement situation. In 1988, the government was forced to make financial restitution at a cost of $230 million to the Japanese-Canadian community for unjustified internment and dispossession during the second world war.
A major effort by six of Canada's ethnocultural communities (including the Jewish-, Chinese- and Indo-Canadian communities) to win fiscal reparations totalling hundreds of millions of dollars for varying crimes against humanity was firmly trounced in the House of Commons on December 14, 1994.
Then Liberal Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Sheila Finestone said, "The issue is whether to address the past or to invest in the future. We believe our only choice lies in using limited government resources to create a more equitable society now.'
Michel Francoeur, the general legal counsel for the Department of Canadian Heritage, who is working alongside the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Justice for the upcoming WCAR, explains that the controversial 1994 decision made by the House of Commons is unbendable.
"In the Commons debates of 1994, Canada did say things like, "We wish we could relive the past.' Unfortunately, we cannot. The bottom line is that the government has a view that financial compensation is not the appropriate way to deal with these matters.'
But while reparations boosters have a consensus that Canada is insensitive, they don't agree on what form of retributive justice should be doled out, to whom or for which rights abuses.
"The apologies are good," says Antoni Shelton, former executive director of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, "but some of the focus has to be on economics. Part of what I saw with the aboriginal communities is that if you don't have that in this capitalist society, you're going to relegate your community to an ongoing second-class citizenry. You don't get the economic stimulus to break those chains."
Others, like Munford, say that any system of retributive cash payouts won't work because it's only a band-aid. "I'm opposed to the Japanese-American model where payments were made to individuals or families. Most of these monies would be used for consumer consumption, which could do something positive but would only give a one-shot boost in the living standards of black communities. Once that one shot is over, the moral basis for compensation is gone."
In the U.S., he says, the main thrust has been equity ownership in the major means of production. But in Canada, with its smaller population, reparations could fund a massive education program to target talented black youth so there would be more black computer engineers, physicians and economists. He also favours grants that identify and encourage qualified black entrepreneurs.
Says Rosemary Sadlier, executive director of the Ontario Black History Society, "My guess is that knowing there are descendants of slaves around, I think a case could be put together (for reparations). There are legal precedents there, but part of the problem is that it starts with education. If you have an educational system that doesn't include black history, then you have people who come out of schools who aren't that aware of why the idea of reparations is so important."
Sadlier suggests that if any reparations resources were to be doled out by the feds, some should go into the completion of things like the Museum of African-Canadian History that the OBHS is working to erect. "We know that slavery existed and that blacks in Canada did tremendous things, but there are so very few black historical sites in the city of Toronto."
Author Ken Alexander argues that there would be a logistical problem in making class-action claims because of the current diasporic nature of the Canadian black community, which is now largely Caribbean-descended. He argues that Canada instead should be made to face up to its historically restrictive immigration policies.
Then there is the dizzyingly large number of questions that are bound to crop up. Is it possible to put a price tag on 200 years of slavery and and its present-day after-effects? Also, would taxpayers who have little or no knowledge of slavery in Canada be willing to talk about it, much less contribute monies to its redress?
Says writer Galabuzi, "I hate to say this, but we may need some sort of a crisis to facilitate a process of confronting these issues. They are not going to go away, and the conditions of communities who were enslaved and colonized is not necessarily going to improve until we deal with the structural impediments."