African-Nova Scotian activists push for discussion about slavery reparations

HALIFAX — African-Nova Scotian organizers say it’s time for a centuries-overdue discussion about Canada’s legacy of slavery, its lasting harms on black Canadians and potential forms of reparation.

“Canada is lagging behind (many countries) on the reparations issue because we haven’t had enough support from the government,” says Lynn Jones, who chairs the Nova Scotia chapter of the Global Afrikan Congress. “We’re having these conversations around the province … and if the government were in tune, the government would be doing this.”

In the absence of a clear national commitment to address Canada’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, Jones says she was encouraged by a recent UN report recommending that the federal government apologize for slavery and consider issuing reparations.

Representatives for federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, who is responsible for the multiculturalism portfolio, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Isaac Saney, a historian who teaches black studies at Dalhousie University, says any meaningful dialogue about reparations must begin with an acknowledgment of what he calls the “original sin” of anti-black racism in Canada — the enslavement of thousands of people of African descent between the 16th and 19th centuries.

“Slavery is the dead hand that has shaped a society,” said Saney. “Slavery no longer exists, but the processes … (that) put it into motion have continued in one form or another into the present.”

Slavery was abolished in the British colonies in the 1830s, but Saney says its legacy set the stage for later injustices against black Canadians — such as segregation, anti-black immigration policies and present-day social inequities — by establishing a precedent for treating people of African descent as “non-citizens.”

This legacy has particular resonance for African-Nova Scotians, a “significant” portion of whom can trace their lineage back to slaves, Saney said.

Jones, who has lent her voice to reparations efforts around the world, sees Nova Scotia’s history as all the more reason why the province should lead the Canadian charge for slavery reparations.

She said her group has met with African-Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Tony Ince to make their case, but she feels the provincial government has yet to seriously engage on the issue.

Ince could not be reached for comment, but told the CBC in an email that these are complex issues that need to be discussed at all levels of government.

While government officials drag their feet, Jones said, she has been working with other organizers and community members to brainstorm ideas for what reparations could look like in a Canadian context.

“At the centre, there needs to be an apology, because everything kind of leads from that,” she says.

Jones said the residual effects of slavery on African-Canadians have been far-reaching, and the government’s approach to redressing these harms should be just as comprehensive.

She said reparations should include government efforts to support African-Canadians such as education programs, economic development, funding community initiatives, housing subsidies and criminal justice reforms.

Compensation for people of African descent should be another form of reparations, says Jones, but she believes the amount should be determined on an ongoing basis.

“Money is one small aspect of the whole picture,” Jones said. “How do you put a dollar on every single part of somebody’s life?”

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