Modern day exploitation in the form of child slaves, enslaved domestic workers and indentured sex workers serve as stark reminders that slavery is still present in many guises, says former Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean.
Jean issued the warning last week in her endorsement of The Harriet Tubman Institute proposal to the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Slave Route Project that historic sites associated with people of African descent in Canada constitute an Itinerary of Memory.
In her keynote address at York University to launch the proposal, Jean said the project – accepted by UNESCO’s Intercultural Dialogue Section head Dr. Ali Moussa Iye who was in Toronto for last week’s Tubman Centre Summer Institute – is one of the most innovative academic initiatives of its kind in Canada.
“Today, we are inviting all Canadians to join us in ushering in a deeper and more extensive understanding of the African Diaspora’s presence in our country by confronting our past together because we must acknowledge the Itinerary of Memory initiative is a culmination of decades of meticulous research, of genealogical exploration and political advocacy by historians, anthropologists, teachers, public officials and human rights activists of all hues, many of whom are here with us today,” said Haitian-born Jean.
“I would say that through your unique contributions, you have conferred greater visibility upon the historic sites dotting the Canadian landscape which bears witness to the enslavement of African and indigenous people. Today, you bring new impetus to the struggle and with the blessings of UNESCO, you are establishing a procedure according to which undiscovered sites can and will be designated Sites of Memory within Canada.
“In so doing, you join the efforts in a transnational circle of solidarity which finds unity in the belief that knowing the history of slavery is essential to seeing a global culture of peace flourish around the world. And to that belief, I say yes, I concur for our story is fundamentally about lifting humanity out of the sinking sand of barbarism and injustice. Our story is about finding the strength and fortitude to shatter the walls of indifference and tyranny that has held us back for so long.
“Our story is about instilling a global ethical fellowship that emboldens humanity to prevent the crimes of the past from dictating the trajectory of the present and the future.”
Jean, UNESCO’s special envoy for Haiti, thanked those individuals who spent years doing the groundwork to formulate the proposal for staying the course in spite of rejection by their peers, ostracism by colleagues and ridicule by friends.
“You resisted the temptation to give in and thanks to your tenacity, the country will reap the fruits of your labour,” she said. “For this initiative will ensure the story of Canada’s African Diaspora ignites hope in the hearts of many, reminding everyone of our great responsibility to safeguard the sacred principles of justice, equality and liberty. I am persuaded that memory is not simply there for us to meditate upon. It can help elucidate certain issues concealed deep within our relations with ourselves.
“In launching this site, we not only pay tribute to women and men who survived one of the worst barbaric ordeals in the history of human kind. We honour our responsibility to seek out truth and wisdom from the past so that the errors of yesterday are never repeated. The persistence of slavery and slave-like practices and human trafficking today should serve as a clear warning that we must continue to be vigilant.”
The Harriet Tubman Institute’s director, Paul Lovejoy, said 11 sites have been identified initially with the intention of undertaking a program of research and there are plans for further designations across Canada.
He said the project is part of a broader initiative to insert the African past into Canada’s national narrative.
“This initiative builds on earlier efforts to reveal the importance of African-Canadian heritage such as promoted by the Ontario Black History Society and Ontario Heritage Trust,” said Lovejoy.
The proposal was made on August 23 which is the UNESCO-proclaimed International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade & its Abolition. The UN also designated this year to People of African Descent.
Iye said The Tubman Institute’s proposal comes at a time when countries that have participated in the slave trade and slavery continue to ignore the tragic history in their heritage policies.
“However, more and more countries are recognizing the cultural diversity of society and the necessity of taking into account the corresponding diversity of memory,” he said. “They are more and more convinced that their democratic citizenship implies the equal recognition of painful memories of the different communities that constitute nations.
“The recognition of Sites of Memory related to the slave trade should be part of any serious policy for a democratic management of national narratives and memory.”
Ontario Heritage Trust chair Dr. Thomas Symons also pledged support for the proposal.
“Ontario’s Black community has made and continue to make an enormously important social, cultural and economic contribution to the life and development of the province,” he said. “The rich and diverse history of this community forms a fundamental and very important part of Ontario’s heritage.”
A descendant of slaves who came to Canada prior to the American Civil War, Bryan Prince has a profound interest in the Underground Railroad and is actively involved with the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum.
“The public knows the story (of slavery) in a general way, but with very few exceptions, much has been lost and forgotten,” said Prince who is a member of The Harriet Tubman executive committee. “But we believe that everyone’s narrative is compelling and worthy of being remembered. The challenges associated with uncovering the tiny details that are sprinkled around the continent and beyond – in museums, archives, attics and in memory – and presenting these stories have been daunting at times.”
York University president Mamdouh Shoukri said The Tubman Institute is doing a great job in reflecting what the university stands for which is academic excellence, equity and social justice.