By PAT WATSON
“Do you remember the days of slavery?” asks Burning Spear in his “Slavery Days” song. The transportation of millions of Africans from the Motherland to the lands of the west from 1450 to 1888, a 438-year practice throughout the Americas from Canada to Brazil, is a defining influence on the generations that flowed from those who survived the transatlantic crossing. The horror of that centuries-long episode in African history resonates to this day.
The history records of Canada prefer to make little of the fact that chattel slavery was practiced here. Rather, the choice is to look to the Underground Railroad as evidence of Canada’s humane accommodation of enslaved Africans seeking freedom. There is no question about that. But the evidence of slavery practiced here is also a fact.
Then too, it would be comforting to think slavery is no longer practiced and that disturbing chapter in human history is closed. But the continued existence of slavery all across the world should be cause for action. Moreover, on the very continent where the business enterprise of enslaving Africans had its genesis, the evidence of slavery persists. And Canada is involved – at least Canadian mining interests.
Exhibit A: A recent report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found that Canadian mining interests in Eritrea have been drawn into slave labour activities. According to the HRW report, a gold mine that was constructed for Nevsun Resources Ltd. in Eritrea used forced labour. HRW charges that the Vancouver-based mining company “failed to ensure that forced labour was not used in the construction” of Bisha Mine, although Nevsun’s efforts to investigate were apparently stymied by its state-owned Eritrean partner, which owns 40 per cent of the enterprise.
HRW says Nevsun “allowed itself to be bullied” by the state-owned construction company and did not do proper investigation into the human rights conditions before going forward with the partnership. Construction of the mine was completed in 2009 and gold mining began there in 2011. Perhaps the reported $614 million worth of ore produced so far has something to do with all of this.
Given the conditions under which Eritrean government forces are prepared to do business with foreign mining interests – and those are many, Nevsun is not even the only Canadian mining company there – slave labour is still a concern.
Canadian mining companies fan out all over the world, so what does that mean for other locations were minerals and local people could be exploited under slave labour?
When Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi, who is also the Chair of the African Union, visited Ottawa recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated: “The development of mining, oil and gas resources in Africa is critical to the future prosperity of the continent.”
Canada is resource rich, but what can be understood from Harper’s statement is that Ottawa is supporting Canadian mining companies in their ventures to exploit natural resources farther afield.
As a people whose ancestors suffered the Maafa, we are witness today to continued exploitation of lands and peoples. During African History Month, looking back reaffirms what happened and why we are where we are now, but it also challenges us to see to it that tragedies of the past are not extended into our collective future. Otherwise, we are vulnerable to continued devastation.
Africa is not what it used to be and it is certainly not the caricature often foisted on us in western media. Yet, centuries-old abuses persist, such as exploitation of natural resources and human exploitation through forced labour, as in Eritrea.
When we ask why African descendants in the Diaspora manifest distinct outlooks, we could choose to look farther back in time to reclaim our total history but we must also factor the effects of 438 years of human bondage. The psychic damage from chattel slavery may have to take 438 years to overcome. We get there by being proactive today, so that we can accelerate our recovery. That includes taking a stand against present day slavery.
A note on a point of justice…
So, a panel of three judges from the Divisional Court have overturned Judge Charles Hackland’s ruling that Rob Ford had violated the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. The old saying is that justice is blind, but to many of us regarding this case, justice is confused – not only confused, but confusing.