Anti-Black racism

What’s wrong with a cheque? A call for slavery reparations in Canada

Canadians have been able to resolve practical questions and support the writing of reparations cheques for many communities
Photo: Women walking from Africville towards Halifax, 1917. Photo from Nova Scotia Archives.
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For the first time in a long time, talk of reparations has penetrated America’s political mainstream. Several front-running candidates for the 2020 presidency — including Kamala Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have articulated a position on the issue of reparations for African Americans. All of them, except Warren, have questioned reparations, largely due to uncertainty and suspicion about the practical mechanics of providing reparations to individuals and families. For instance, in one recent interview, when asked whether he supports reparations, Sanders stated, “Yeah — but not if it means just a cash payment or a check to families. I would not support that.”

In Canada, there’s been little talk about reparations. The country has yet to meaningfully undertake its own consideration and accounting for its pernicious participation in the enslavement of African people within its impugned borders. As such, it’s time that we talk about the implementation of a plan for reparations for Black Canadians.

Calling for an African Canadian Reparations Act

In January 2018, Canada announced that it was officially recognizing the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–2024). This week, the federal government released its Budget 2019, which expressly proposes to provide $25 million over five years, starting in 2019–20, to fund projects and capital assistance to celebrate, share knowledge, and build capacity Black Canadian communities. Building on these efforts, Canada should adopt an African Canadian Reparations Act.

Great Canadian names such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and James McGill (founder of McGill University) amassed considerable wealth through slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Under this Act, an African Canadian Reparations Commission should be established to iron out the details of paying reparations to individual African Canadians and families descendant of those enslaved in Canada. Instead of undertaking another cross-country consultation with Black communities, the Act should legislate that the Commission work in accountable and respectful partnership with African Canadian communities, leaders and experts to oversee the implementation of all of the recommendations set out in the report of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada.

These apt and sweeping recommendations include everything from having Canada make an official apology for slavery, to supporting the development and maintenance of robust health, education, economic, justice and social benefit institutions expressly constituted to address equity gaps in community well-being for African Canadians.

The Working Group’s report and recommendations are based on facts, evidence, experiences and consultations with thousands of Black individuals across Canada. As I’ve previously argued, while not exhaustive in its consultations, the report’s recommendations provide an unparalleled, democratic and community-grounded baseline for a coordinated strategy for achieving racial equity for Black people in Canada. Indeed, no document comes closer to providing a roadmap for reparations for Black Canadians. Using these Working Group recommendations as a plan for reparations to Black Canadians enables Canada to concretely reckon with its past practice of enslaving Africans for capital and social gains.

Canadian slavery: History of anti-Black brutality

From approximately 1628 to 1834, on the lands now claimed by Canada, tens of thousands of people of African descent lost their lives and liberty to the state-sanctioned and socially supported institution of anti-African enslavement.

For centuries, because of their skin colour, enslaved Africans were not only bought, sold, traded and trafficked as chattel but could also be raped, tortured, lynched and torched with impunity. For more than 200 years, Black people on these lands could have their bodies openly and routinely battered, bloodied and bruised without redress. This was because they were not regarded as human beings; their humanity was legally stolen from them and forcibly replaced by their status as objects of property. To facilitate greater ease and comfort for white European settlement in the Great White North, Africans were enslaved to do the colonizers’ domestic chores, including, cooking, cleaning, and childcare, as well as undertake the arduous and dangerous tasks of clearing wooded lands, hunting, building structures, and providing all forms of general labour and servitude. All unpaid.

The ramifications of slavery reverberate into the present, significantly compromising the prospects and potential of Black peoples across Canada.

The systemic anti-Black brutality of slavery benefited pre-Confederation Canada, which used abominable European customs, law and legal institutions to unjustly extract the aforementioned unfree labour from Black bodies for the settling and building of what would become this colonial country, Canada. Great Canadian names such as the Hudson’s Bay Company and James McGill (founder of McGill University) amassed considerable wealth through slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Even Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was a beneficiary of the spoils of this intolerable trade in African adults and children. In Upper Canada’s first legislature, six of 16 legislators or their family members were slaveholders.

Though the direct experience of enslavement is its own horrific fate that demands restitution, it is important to point out that slavery had deeply damaging effects on pre- and post-Confederation Canada’s social, political, economic and cultural life in a way that impacts all people of African descent on these lands. Through the development and transference of centuries of generational trauma, as well as through Canada’s perpetuation of deeply entrenched anti-Black social scripts and stereotypes that reflected and reinforced notions justifying African enslavement, all Black peoples are impacted by Canada’s practice of slavery and the legacy of this tragic trade as it has manifested in lives across Canada.

While the existence and persistence of anti-African enslavement on these lands is not a widely known or typically taught fact within Canada’s academic curriculum, slavery is an inextricable component of this country’s national heritage and cultural inheritance as a Western power.

Slavery’s afterlife: The stunted well-being of today’s Black Canadians

Following a Canadian fact-finding mission meeting with Black communities in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax and Montreal, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent released a report in September 2017 on its mission to Canada. It recognized that the persistence of systemic anti-Black racism in Canadian systems of education, employment, housing, health and criminal justice are rooted in this country’s history of slavery.

“Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization of African Canadians has left a legacy of anti-Black racism and had a deleterious impact on people of African descent, which must be addressed in partnership with the affected communities. Across Canada, many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment and are overrepresented at all levels of the criminal justice system.”

The question of what the plaintiffs will do with their cheques has little to no legal or moral bearing on the decision to award financial compensation.

The report clearly and effectively ties contemporary socio-systemic disparities and disadvantages facing Black people in Canada directly to this country’s history of enslaving Africans. It articulates a powerful overview of the conditions of social neglect endured by Black people in Canada, and does so in a way that is reminiscent of African American professor Saidiya Hartman’s concept of slavery’s afterlife. Hartman describes this phenomenon as, “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”

The ramifications of slavery reverberate into the present, significantly compromising the prospects and potential of Black peoples across Canada. This fact has been recognized by Black communities across Canada and, with this report, by the United Nations.

What’s wrong with a cheque?

When it comes to reparations for slavery, a mix of reflexive Afrophobia, misinformation, ignorance and outright anti-Black racism often and easily derails the conversation before it can really commence. “But, but, but who will get paid? Who pays? How? How much? Who decides?” Others flippantly and fervently oppose the prospect of providing individual cheques to families that are descendant of Africans enslaved in Canada, and do so on the basis of baldly asserting that this is somehow an inappropriate and unjustifiable way to provide reparations.

Canadians have been able to resolve practical questions and support the writing of reparations cheques when it comes to other communities against whom Canada or other states have been implicated in causing horrific human rights abuses. This includes Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Chinese people and descendants forced to pay the Chinese head tax, victims of Japanese internment and, more recently, survivors of Indian Residential Schools. As such, it’s reasonable to infer that official refusal and public opposition to providing reparations to Black people in Canada is simply an expression of blatant anti-Black racism, both direct and systemic.

It is also worth recognizing that paying reparations to African Canadians is not entirely uncharted territory for Canadian governments. After a decades-long battle, in 2010, African Nova Scotians received an official apology, compensation and the establishment of a heritage trust as acts of reparation by the Nova Scotia government for the forcible eviction and eventual destruction of the community of Africville.

The Crown inherited this system of enslavement, provided it with legal protection, benefited from its perpetuation.

Anti-Black paternalism and infantilization of Black people are most commonly at the core of opposition to paying reparations cheques directly to African descendants of victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. What African Canadian individuals, families and communities decide to do with funds properly due to them as compensation for surviving centuries of enslavement is entirely their prerogative. The human agency and right of self-determination of African Canadians are paramount and must be respected.

Moreover, when a Canadian court awards significant sums to successful plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit, the question of what the plaintiffs will do with their cheques has little to no legal or moral bearing on the decision to award financial compensation for the loss or injuries the plaintiffs have suffered. Similarly for African Canadians, such considerations are irrelevant. It is also inappropriate and offensive for the state or other agents, individuals or institutions that have benefited from Canada’s past enslaving to attempt to dictate to Black Canadians what they can and cannot do with funds duly awarded to them as an act of reparatory justice for the enslavement of our African ancestors.

Providing fair compensation to African Canadian individuals, families and communities for enslavement of their foreparents should be an integral part and priority of any actions Canada takes towards providing reparations to Black people in Canada. However, reparations can and must be broader than this, and must also include establishing institutions that support the achievement of racial equity for Canada’s Black communities, hence my call for an African Canadian Reparations Act and Commission.

Reparations flow from the Crown

Some may oppose Canadian reparations for slavery on the basis that slavery was officially abolished on these lands in 1834, and Canada was not officially birthed as a state until 1867.

What’s missed by this argument is that the Constitution Act, 1867, explicitly established Canada as a “Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” Canada continues to recognize this same Crown as its head of state, namely as “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second Queen of Canada Her Heirs and Successors.”

With only five years left of the International Decade for People of African Descent, an unprecedented but shrinking window of opportunity presents itself.

It was the French who introduced legalized slavery of Africans on these lands. On May 1, 1689, King Louis XIV officially authorized the importation of enslaved Black people. Subsequently, Louis XV made two proclamations sanctioning the perpetuation of African enslavement here, first in the 1720s and again in 1745. When the British took lands of Turtle Island from France in 1760, Article XLVII of the Articles of Capitulation, the document that made this colonial transfer of lands official, expressly left the practice of enslaving Africans a legal institution on these lands.

All of this is to say that from the 1760s to the present, the British Crown has remained the head of state over lands now claimed by Canada. The Crown inherited this system of enslavement, provided it with legal protection, benefited from its perpetuation, maintained power over British slaveholding colonies, and continued to hold this power even after the institution legally enslaving Africans was formally abolished. It is through the historical continuity of colonial monarchy that reparations to Black Canadians for their enslavement on these lands remains legally and morally viable and justified.

Restoring Canada’s relationship with Black Canadians

Dr. Hilary McD. Beckles is a historian and chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Committee. In his seminal book, Britain’s Black Debt, he writes, “The objective of reparations is not to punish or penalize the offender, but to establish conditions for a just, reconciled future. Reparation is not an action of confrontation, but a search for unity; that is, the aim is repairing a damaged relationship.” It is in this same spirit of seeking peaceful restoration of Canada’s relationship with its Black communities that I write this piece.

To restore right relations of respect, dignity and accountability between Canada and this country’s Black communities, a new, distinct and unprecedented path must be pursued to achieve reparatory justice. Canada has a moral, legal and political imperative to, at very least, publicly explore this pathway to racial justice for Black Canadians. Now, with only five years left of the International Decade for People of African Descent, an unprecedented but shrinking window of opportunity presents itself.

This country’s constitutionally enshrined multicultural heritage can never be fully honoured or realized so long as this country refuses to recognize and concretely account for its history and legacy of enslaving thousands of Africans spanning three centuries. The UN Working Group’s conclusions and recommendations offer a clear, Black Canadian community–informed way to do this.

While we are still in the International Decade for People of African Descent, Canada can and must seize the time. As Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “The time is always right to do what's right.”

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