mel's-gotta-go protests aside, demands for reparations have zoomed to the top of black activists' to-do lists. On this warm Saturday (July 28), the African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC) has invited the architect of the modern-day African-American reparations movement, Randall Robinson, to help fan local flames. The conference is the Second African-Canadian Preparatory Gathering for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. On this, the second and final day of the meeting, the subject is strictly reparations, and a straight-no-chaser mood has energized the audience just minutes into the first mini-lecture, by Micere Mugo of Syracuse University. She offers up an acidic critique of blacks who don't support reparations. "It's embarrassing that you have black people who look like us saying, "It is time to forget, time to stop moaning about reparations.'"
There are more lawyers in this room than you can shake a stick at, but Clarence Munford, professor emeritus at Guelph University, says it's fruitless to obsess about lawsuits. "We're dealing with white supremacist courts, and given the specificity of an Anglo-Saxon legal system skewed toward settlement on behalf of individual living plaintiffs, you have the legal problem that the last slave is long-since dead."
The number of high-ranking professional blacks who have come out to support this event is dizzying. Culturally attired local Afrocentric educator and Share columnist Clem Marshall is in attendance. Charles Smith, the hyper-articulate equity director from the Law Society of Upper Canada is on hand, and the popular Akua Benjamin of the Congress of Black Women. The turnout of 250-plus is impressive, but the glaring absence of any of the black bourgeoisie or black political figures from any level of government doesn't cut it for York U's Sheldon Taylor, an African-Canadian historian.
Taylor tells me that "what tends to happen is that the very individuals who receive the benefits and get government appointments and recognition don't come to functions like this."
A fellow scribe comments that this event feels like a reparations boot camp, but in a good sense. Participants get briefed by a Rainbow Coalition-esque smattering of legal specialists and politicos from other racial and ethnic communities who are involved in struggles for redress or have been in the past. Audrey Kobayashi of the Japanese Canadian Association tells the tale of the Japanese-Canadian Redress Agreement, offering up tips on legal loopholes; the Chinese Canadian National Council's Avvy Go gives a status report on the Chinese head tax legal case; Chief Dwight Dorey from the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples has some tips based on aboriginal residential school and land claims suits; and Ed Morgan, Ontario chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress, brings up Holocaust survivor claims.
Then there are the surprise agenda items that make things even more interesting. A bunch of petitions start flying after organizers get word that the only black lawyer in the Canadian WCAR delegation (Florence Champuka, from the Department of Justice) was removed from the list of invitees to this conference. Susan Howard Azzeh from the Fort Erie Multicultural Centre hijacks the microphone during one of the Q&As to explain why she thinks Zionism is racism. At this point, many in attendance kiss their teeth aloud, Caribbean-style, wondering why she'd rudely disrupt such a positive event.
Azzeh's ramble is immediately cut short by organizers, and the mike stand is moved away from her as someone in the back shouts, "Sister, you should go to the synagogue and tell them that."
Some of the most intelligent yet divergent opinions on the African-Canadian platform come from Rocky Jones, a prominent civil rights activist and lawyer in Nova Scotia.
"It is very bothersome to me that no reps from the East, New Brunswick or Nova Scotia are part of the delegation going to South Africa. I find that extremely insulting. The people who are going forward to discuss this issue will have a very difficult time explaining the issues that are pertinent for us on the East Coast. The power resides in central Canada, where the African-Canadian community is dominated by first- and second-generation immigrants. Not all of us as Africans have had the same historical experience."
The revolutionary vigour cascades about some grim realities as a roundtable addresses some of the barriers to establishing successful legal claims to reparations. Lawyer Joanna Birenbaum, who works on behalf of the Grand Council of the Crees of Northern Quebec, lists some of the tactics used by the Canadian government to railroad native redress claims. "They'll try to out-resource you so you spend thousands of dollars, never mind on legal fees, on photocopying and getting to court."
Birenbaum warns that Canadian indigenous peoples have already won international decisions at the UN level, but the enforcement of UN-sanctioned rulings at the local level is very difficult.
Arif Virani, another civil litigation expert, outlines some of the statute-of-limitation-period arguments. "An African-Canadian claim would date back as early as the 1830s, when slavery was outlawed in the British empire, and there will be defences raised in court that this claim is out of date from a legal perspective." Virani argues that due to the retroactive application of laws, it might be more fruitful to centre the African-Canadian claim, not on what happened 170 years ago, but on the lasting impact of the slave trade on blacks today.
Just when the idea of seeking out reparations seems like an unnerving and daunting task, Randall Robinson enters for his keynote lecture and puts to rest any doubts that this struggle won't bring home the bacon.
Tall, stately and wearing matching suit and tie, the Harvard-trained Robinson's bald head glistens as he says, "If we receive $11 trillion and we can't repair the damage it's (slavery's) done to our psyche, then the money would do us no good. We've won the first stage by convincing black folks that we are worthy of this."
Robinson emphatically clarifies who the beneficiaries of redress ought to be. "People like myself who endured mental, emotional scarring and psychic consequences would not be entitled to reparation, because materially I'm OK. I make the argument that those who have been bottom-stuck since the Emancipation Proclamation and are in that position intergenerationally deserve this."
Robinson and others may come with scholarly credentials, but the free flow of ideas comes from everyone, from folks from far and wide. For example, the greying, bushy-bearded Gilles Prince, from Dorval, of the International Black Coalition of Quebec, explains how he's waited 35 years for this type of meeting to happen. "Here in Toronto, people have made us aware of things. We were completely ignorant, and the magnitude of this event has brought us a lot of light."
Regina-based social worker and activist Nicole Eddie, representing the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities, says this conference will be an impetus for discussion of reparations in Saskatchewan, where black migration goes back to the 1800s and where blacks were forced into segregated schools.
Munford's early-morning speech seems to have summed up the general feeling. "The few benefits and little concessions we have won in North America are because black people raised a lot of hell. And if we don't raise a lot of hell, we acquiesce to our oppression. Why reparations? Because we are so divided on all other counts, the one thing that most ordinary black folks like me seem to be able to agree on is that our enslavement ought to be worth a whole lot of money."