Without land ownership that equates to economic and political freedom, Blacks will be unable to claim their rightful place in Canadian society, educator and activist Dr. George Elliott Clarke told a panel discussion at the biennial Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA) conference at Dalhousie University in Halifax last weekend.
The title of the discussion was, “Reconstituting African-Canadian Identity”.
“In order to have political clout and power in this country, you need to have your ethnic and cultural identity represented and you need to control territory,” said the City of Toronto poet laureate and E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto. “You need to have land. And that is why it’s so important that we have struggled so much in Nova Scotia over Africville and the ongoing snatching away of property around Beechville. This is fundamental. The entire country is set up on control of territory, one ethnicity or another.”
For more than 150 years, Africville was home to a strong and proud community of Black Nova Scotians. In the 1960s, Halifax’s city government acquired the land and in the process displaced close to 80 Black families and 400 individuals from Canada’s largest and oldest Black community. Parts of the land were used for an off-leash dog park and construction of the approaches to the A. Murray Mackay Bridge. Ottawa declared Africville a heritage site in 1996.
A rural community in Halifax, Beechville has been eroded by development over the years. The community’s first settlers were among the nearly 2,000 Black refugees that arrived in Halifax between 1813 and 1815 from the Chesapeake Bay area of the United States.
A seventh generation Canadian of African-American and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage, Clarke said that Black Canadians – like every other ethnicity that has emigrated to Canada – needs land or a community base to establish their identities and what it means to be Black in Canada.
“You need to control your communities and the business of your communities,” he added. “All the talk about multiculturalism, liberalism and we all are going to get along and so on and so forth don’t mean anything if you don’t have control of your community. It’s only by controlling your community, the politics and the economics of your community, that you can go to the powers-that-be and demand equality.”
The panel also included Dr. Handel Wright of the University of British Columbia and Michelle Williams, a senior instructor in the faculty of law and the director of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq (IB&M) initiative at Dalhousie University.
She said Blacks need to strategically orchestrate a paradigm shift in their understanding of their integral place in Canadian society.
“More specifically, I think we should be working towards articulating and establishing ourselves among the founding settlers of this country,” said Williams, the recipient of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers 2011 Pathfinder Award. “The reason I come to this is that our presence and contributions here in this country are usually summarily erased by virtue of our subjugated legal and conventional status during most of our 400-year presence in this country. But that in no way diminishes our actual existence and contributions. So another way of saying that is we are often defined by virtue of our marginalization or the racism that we experience…We are much more than the racism we experience. We are nation builders and that part I don’t think gets articulated fully and I don’t think anybody is going to do it for us. So it’s our work to put that together.”
As a member of the inaugural class of Global Public Service Law Scholars at New York University where she obtained a Master of Laws degree in 2001 and was awarded a post-graduate, Williams said that while the First Nations People are the original residents in Canada, Blacks are at the front and centre of the group that built this country and they are at least equal to anybody else who came.
“But that is not recognized and so it’s my suggestion that we work together to develop a shared articulation of our rightful legal and constitutional place in this country that recognizes our status as a distinct people or society,” she said. “The status I am talking about is not limited to or contingent upon solely the African Nova Scotian or Maritime experience or the experience of other historically Black communities. I am not suggesting that only African Nova Scotians or those who were here early on constitute this group that requires recognition constitutionally. I think that all people of African descent here in Canada share in that constitutional status because we have a shared culture, a shared global history and a shared contemporary experience that brings us all under that rubric constitutionally.”
“It strikes me that if we were able to structure through an interdisciplinary and participatory approach this shared articulation of our status and our right as a people to be recognized as such, that we could use that asserted status every time we go in to meet with a policy maker and every time we ask for changes in legislation, every time we run a race-based case through the courts which I have helped in doing before. We would have a shared framework structurally from which to work together in asserting that across the country. So that is sort of my dream.”
Dr. Afua Cooper, the James Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, launched the BCSA in Vancouver in 2009 when she was the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in Simon Fraser University’s Women’s Studies Department.