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Black history in Canada moment: the maritimes

This year for Black History Month, I have decided to do a bit of research into black history in my home and native land, Canada. Since there are 4 Mondays in February, I am going to focus on 4 different regions of the country. Last week I looked at black history in Ontario. This week I will be concluding this series with a look at black history in the maritime provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.

It’s somewhat psychologically satisfying to conclude this series on the east coast. I say that because one of the very first things I ever talked about on this blog, and something I have made repeated reference to, is a hate crime that occurred in that region. At the time, I pointed to the complicated history of the region:

Nova Scotia is home to a surprisingly large number of black people – that is, surprising unless you know some of the history. Africville is an area in Halifax that was home to hundreds of recently-freed slaves and imports from Africa. Some black families in Nova Scotia can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. However, due to overt racism in the 1800s and early 20th century, and more subtle systemic (“polite”) racism in the latter half of the 1900s, black people in Canada have rarely been able to move into the upper middle class. Since race and class are closely related, and given the economic fortunes of the maritime provinces (largely agricultural, less industrial, economic decline in recent years due to fisheries changes), black people have commonly got the short end of the stick.

The maritime region of Canada has a long and storied racial history. With Nova Scotia and New Brunswick both joining confederation as one of the original provinces, much of the foundational history of these provinces is tied inextricably to Irish immigrants. In fact, even a brief period spent in Halifax or St. John will immediately call that lineage forth. However, in addition to British, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, a large population of black immigrants were instrumental in building the territories even before confederation in 1867.

The first group of black New Brunswickers were Loyalists – black men and women loyal to the British Empire who left America following the war of independence. Despite being given land to farm by the government, there was little by way of instructional assistance available to these Loyalists, meaning that they struggled to raise enough to live off of from their land. Given that they were barred from voting, essentially banned from living or practicing a trade within the St. John city limits (something that’s been mentioned on this blog before), and could be kept in unofficial slavery as indentured servants, life was not exactly pleasant for black Loyalists well into the 19th century.

One fascinating chapter of Canadian history that is unique in the world is our role in the country of Sierra Leone. This country enjoys the somewhat backhanded distinction of being an experiment in the “back to Africa” concept – returning the children of slaves back to Africa to return to their roots. 1200 escaped slaves and freemen who had given up on living in Canada were loaded onto transports and shipped back to Africa to establish a place for themselves. Of course, the interests of the colonial powers and foreign corporations undermined any attempt for the newly-relocated settlers to gain any kind of economic independence (a practice that still persists to this day), and the welfare of the relocated black people wasn’t much improved. Much of this process has been described in Lawrence Hill’s novel The Book of Negroes.

In addition to the Loyalists, another group of black immigrants landed in Nova Scotia following the war of 1812. These refugees, largely from Virginia and Maryland, were also given land. Many of them were relegated to ghettoes, the most famous of which being called Africville in Halifax. Despite having land and the right to trade within the city of Halifax, it was exceedingly difficult for black Nova Scotians to secure employment, due to a variety of factors which include lack of access to education, and the pervasive racism of the time. That employment that was available was mostly manual labour, working in shipyards or processing the imports and fisheries.

Africville was always considered a ghetto – while the rest of Halifax was kept modern with infrastructure, Africville lacked plumbing or sewage systems. Home ownership was low, meaning that the accumulation of wealth by black families was next to impossible. After a huge explosion in 1917, the city of Halifax was rebuilt and updated – Africville was not. The city began relocating whatever unsightly detritus they didn’t want in the nicer parts of the city into the Africville area, including sewage treatment plants, garbage dumps, and prisons. Advocates of a “chez nous” approach to social services will be interested to know that the churches provided most of the types of services that we would currently expect from the government. However, being consistently and purposefully excluded from the larger Halifax community meant that these approaches were limited in their effectiveness.

In the 1960s, the government decided (in their enduring wisdom) that Africville was an eyesore that could not be allowed to stand any longer. Residents were forcibly evicted (remember that most did not own their homes – those who did have ownership title were given a tiny stipend and forcibly relocated to housing projects) and the area was bulldozed. The matter would not be investigated, and an apology would not be forthcoming, until 2004 – 40 years too late to do anything about it. The CBC has a film archive of the history of the area and its eventual destruction.

It is perhaps unsurprising, given the context of this history, that there is a great deal of racial tension in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick today. Social norms and attitudes about racism don’t change overnight, and much of the history was swept under the carpet for many years. Black immigration into the eastern provinces would all but stop in the early 20th century. Despite the fact that black people helped build the maritimes, they were never granted a place there. The story of the maritimes reflects well the story of black people in the rest of Canada – we’ve been here forever, but have never been welcome.

Summarizing thoughts

The stereotypical refrain of the put-upon hight school history student is “why do we have to learn this stuff? It’s just names and dates!” A knowledge of history is crucial if we want to understand why things are the way they are now. Historical ignorance breeds contemporary ignorance – one of the many bones I have to pick with those who would clamor to “take our country back“: more likely than not there were real problems for major groups of people at any point in history you’d like to point to, and members of those groups do not particularly want to go back.

Black history in Canada is not merely a subject thrown in people’s faces to make up for historical injustices, or to remind us that black people used to be slaves a million years ago – it serves to remind us that the daily reality of being black in Canada is built on an ancient foundation of hatred, distrust, exclusion, and intentional suppression. From the east to the west coast, every black Canadian carries that heritage on her/his shoulders, regardless of how long or short her/his family has been here. I was born into this history, despite the fact that my father was not born Canadian.

You were born into this history too, regardless of what your feelings toward it are. We are all products of our society, which is itself a product of our history. Understanding the historical forces at work provides us with much-needed context with which to colour our daily experiences. To understand our history is to understand ourselves, and it is only when we are armed with that kind of understanding that we can take the steps necessary to walk into the future together.

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