Reconciliation

Black people in Canada are not settlers

While Blacks in Canada have been beneficiaries of colonization in many ways, we are not its purveyors. We need language that better captures the roots of this country’s Black presence. Here’s an idea.
Photo: Digby County, Nova Scotia, around 1950. By John Collier Jr. / Nova Scotia Archives.
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Considering place, space and belonging, questions of Black people and our presence in Canada is a perpetually contested topic. This is because, despite our country having an official mantra of multiculturalism, Black people exist on or beyond the margins of official myth and memory of Canadian history, identity and society.

This has cultivated among Canadians a collective national consciousness that makes too many confuse or misconstrue the role Black people have played in Canada’s colonial creation story. A critical example of this is the ongoing debate around who should be viewed as a settler in Canadian society. Of particular interest is the developing conversation on the appropriateness of labelling Black people in Canada as settlers on this land.

In a recent Vice article, writer Ashleigh-Rae Thomas engaged two Indigenous and two Black thought leaders to reflect on whether Black people in Canada can or should be seen as settlers. The piece highlights the fact that the presence of Black people in Canada is inextricably linked to the history and legacy of the dehumanizing enslavement of African people.

At the root of this unique and interconnected fact, we find a solid grounding for reconciliation between Black and Indigenous people in Canada.

Thomas and each of her interviewees independently note that descendants of enslaved Africans cannot be properly considered settlers of Canada because their migration to the lands now claimed by the Canadian state was not a product of their freely and fully consented choice but rather the product of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a primary engine of global capitalism from the 1600s to the mid-1800s.

“The descendants of enslaved Africans absolutely cannot be considered settlers,” said Chelsea Vowel, a Lac Ste. Anne Métis and author of Indigenous Writes, in the article. “Enslaved peoples could not consent to being brought here, and their presence cannot confer upon their descendants acceptance into the settler colonial system, especially since, being inherently white supremacist, settler colonialism is virulently anti-Black.”

Critical and honest reflection on the facts of history should lead us all to agree that enslaved Africans and their descendants in Canada cannot be appropriately be considered settlers.

So, what’s a more historically accurate way of describing Black people whose ancestors were dehumanized, forcibly removed from Africa, trafficked and transplanted to and through the Western world and re-routed and re-rooted in lands now claimed as Canadian soil?

Towards a new term for Canada’s Black presence

A term that more effectively captures the routes/roots of the Black presence in Canada is “forcibly displanted Africans.” The shorthands I use for this term are “displanted Africans,” “the forcibly displanted,” “displanted people,” or, simply, “the displanted.”

“Forcibly displanted Africans” replaces anachronistic and inaccurate languaging of Black presence and experience in Canada, moving us beyond the unuseful term of “settler.” It offers a description of Black people and presence in this country that is ultimately much more consistent with the factual histories and realities of Canada’s African heritage.

Central to this offering of a new descriptor is the word “displanted,” a portmanteau of the words “displaced” and “replanted.” To the fundamentally unjust benefit of European powers and people, through the calamitous ravages of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization, African people were displaced from their ancestral lands and replanted, primarily in soils across the Atlantic Ocean, including the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States, and of course Canada.

This displacement was forcible because it was violently imposed and executed through a European-headquartered global network of inhumanely coercive institutions and practices that, on catastrophic scales, facilitated widespread and systematic mass kidnapping, trafficking, terror and murder of African people for the purposes of extracting their labour to build Europe’s “New World.” The United Nations conservatively estimates that 15 million Africans lost their lives and liberty to slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Relanguaging Indigenous-Black relations in Canada

Embedded in the concept of displantedness is the recognition that African people were involuntarily uprooted, enslaved, and scattered by Europeans, then reinserted into land not their own, into the soil of Turtle Island’s Indigenous Peoples.

This, of course, complicates the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Displanted Africans in Canada. This complication goes beyond what can be effectively captured and engaged by situating Black Canadians within the false dichotomy of Indigenous-settler relations.

Aina-Nia Ayo’dele, founder and managing director of Sacred Women International, is known to say that there’s a space for co-existence, understanding and healing between Indigenous and Black people in Canada through the correlative fact that “Indigenous people have had their land stolen, and African people have been stolen from their land.”

Finding perfectly applicable English words reflective of the complexities of Black humanity and its survived atrocities is an exercise in futility.

At the root of this unique and interconnected fact, we find a solid grounding for reconciliation between Black and Indigenous people in Canada, while also honouring that there are thousands in this country that are of both Indigenous and African heritage.

Global capitalism’s centuries-old symbiotic sins of colonization of Indigenous lands and the enslavement of Africans is not just a point of intersecting sufferings of Indigenous and Black people. It is also a potentially powerful point of departure for healing, understanding and mutually reinforcing resistance against the afterlives of colonization and slavery.

This potential cannot be realized by calling Blacks in Canada “settlers.” This label mischaracterizes the true nature of the land-labour relationship that mediates Indigenous and African peoples’ interconnected histories, which feature centuries of our peoples’ coextensive suffering.

Displantedness and Canada’s current Black populations

The added value of the term “forcibly displaced Africans” is that it doesn’t cover only enslaved Africans in Canada and their direct descendants but all people of indigenous African heritage who, through generations of (post-)colonially forced displacement and migration, now find themselves in Canada as first, second- or third- generation Canadians.

Within Canada’s populations of African and/or Caribbean heritage, it is common to hear elders and newcomers alike openly express that they would have preferred to stay in the lands of their birth, but they left and came to Canada because their home countries couldn’t provide adequate access to quality health, education, housing and employment opportunities for them and their future families. The lack of such supports is a product and process of the colonization and neo-colonization of African and the Caribbean, which Canada is deeply implicated in and has benefited from.

The violently forced processes of colonization and post-colonial structural adjustment programs that handcuff the development and independence of Caribbean and African countries have effectively eroded these countries’ abilities to provide such services sustainably. In other words, Western colonization of the Caribbean and Africa acts as the displacing push/pull factor that accounts for much, if not most, of the Black presence in Canada historically and still today.

This is why current Black populations in Canada are also to be considered forcibly displanted Africans.

Language and the limitations of other tongues

In trying to find language to properly name Canada’s Black presence, I’m reminded of the words of distinguished Black Canadian storyteller, M. NourbeSe Philip: “I continue to be plagued by working with language that was fatally contaminated by its history of empire and colonialism, and having no language to turn to in order to hide or heal.”

I point to this quote to acknowledge that “forcibly displanted Africans” is an appropriate but ultimately imperfect replacement for “settler” as a term to define Canada’s Black populations in relation to Indigenous Peoples.

While Blacks in Canada have been beneficiaries of colonization in many ways, we are not its purveyors.

The English language is not the language of my African ancestral people. Its contemporary version comes from a time when native English speakers did not view my African ancestors as people. As such, finding perfectly applicable English words reflective of the complexities of Black humanity and its survived atrocities is an exercise in futility. But my aim is not to find a perfect substitute for the mislabelling of Black Canadian populations as settlers. My aim, rather, is to offer language that more accurately reflects the presence and relationship of people of African descent to Indigenous Peoples and their lands, now claimed by Canada.

For some, this debate is semantic, and for others it’s simply symbolic. For me and many more, it’s central to reconstituting the trilateral relationship between Indigenous Peoples, agents of the Canadian state and Black populations in Canada.

Given that Canada’s colonial conquest of Indigenous Peoples and lands was largely funded through the spoils of enslaved African labour, this reframing of relations is part and parcel of the project of reconciliation.

The way forward

In offering the new language of “displantedness,” I hope to push a debate that broadens the boundaries of Canadians’ collective imaginations in a way that doesn’t improperly place the responsibility for settler colonialism on my people.

While Blacks in Canada have been beneficiaries of colonization in many ways, we are not its purveyors. African peoples have not violently dispossessed Indigenous peoples by imposing our legal systems, institutions and customs and forcing assimilation of Indigenous Peoples into our cultural, religious and social practices. As such, all people should stop calling Blacks in Canada “settlers.”

Continuing to use “settler” to name Canada’s Black presence is not only ahistoric and intellectually lazy but it also prevents Canada from effectively contesting with the troubling truths of its history and heritage. As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to face these truths, justice is always impeded where truth is ceded. As Canada has already gleaned from South African processes of transitional justice and national healing, we must not forget that truth must come before reconciliation.

It’s imperative that our national narratives tell the truth about Canada’s Black presence. There can be no other way forward.

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