Moderator: Michelle Williams-Lorde, Assistant Professor & Director, Indigenous Blacks & Mi'kmaq Initiative
Wanda Thomas Bernard, Professor, School of Social Work, Dalhousie University
Claudine Bonner, Post-Doctoral Fellow, School of Social Work, Dalhousie University
Isaac Saney, Professor, College of Continuing Studies, Dalhousie University, and Canadian Network on Cuba Co-chair and National Spokesperson
Chike Jeffers, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Dalhousie University
Afua Cooper, James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, Dalhousie University
Rapporteur: Nasreen Hussain (BSW Placement Student) | October 2012
The topic of discussion for the African Canadian workshop was about citizenship rights interfacing with the struggles against racism. Dr. Bonner's discourse came out of a research study that contacted and interviewed elders from three African Nova Scotian communities, for a project entitled, "The Freedom Experience of Blacks in Nova Scotia." The narratives from the elders reflected life stories of 26 community elders and looked at their experiences and epistemologies.
This study was a new phase in the scholarly efforts of the Promised Land Project, continuing the study's mandate of erasing the historical amnesia that plagues African Canadian history, and seeking to include the voices of African Canadians in the telling of their own stories. With its vital role in the history of Black Canada, and with the multiple familial and other connections between the many post-Underground Railroad communities, it was important to include other voices and perspectives in the telling of the multiplicity of stories which make up Black Canadian history. Its purpose was in finding a collective voice. An oral history project is about recording civic memory and the pride communities can take from their involvement in building a nation. By recognizing and engaging the residents directly, the recordings will foster a greater sense of community belonging and of citizenship earned. It is about examining the history through the voices and perspectives of people who have lived, experienced, and "made" history firsthand.
Black Power: The Freedom Experience of Black's in Nova Scotia study has chosen to see Black Power as a coming together of people of African descent, as a result of a realization that "in order to achieve social equality, it is necessary for Black people to organize themselves so that they can operate from a basis of power". How this power manifested itself, of course was dependent on the particular group(s) involved and on their varied circumstances. The study chose this officially articulated definition of Black Power as understood by the local Black United Front (BUF). Wherever individuals in the study acknowledged coming together as a group, specifically to make change within their communities, they recognized that this taking ownership would be the only way for them to have any kind of opportunity for equal treatment and outcomes. This was classified under the umbrella of Black Power.
Africville: A small Nova Scotian community located on the southern shore of Halifax, populated almost entirely by African Nova Scotians from a wide selection of origins. This land was seized and its residents were forcibly relocated due to railway construction and building of the Murray Mackay Bridge. The city began building industrial sites all around and through Africville after Halifax residents rejected the unappealing structures. Africville became the home to Rockhead Prison, the city's night soil disposal pits, a hospital, an open city dump and incinerator (in the early 1950s) and a slaughterhouse.
1964-1967: The community of Africville is destroyed by the city of Halifax. Many Africville residents ended up in slum housing, their personal belongings transported in city garbage trucks. Bulldozers were sent in during the night to level the community – not only the houses, but the stores, businesses and even the church. The community has become an important symbol of African Nova Scotia identity and the struggle against racism. Among the 4,500 Blacks living in Halifax's north end, many are descendants and former residents of Africville.
The after-effects: The city still holds that residents were removed involuntarily from their homes in the name of "progressive" relocation. However, the "new start" promised to the residents of Africville has never been materialized. They still suffer from socio-economic hardships and live in crowded public housing.
Some saw the abolition of Africville as a positive government action to bring employment, education and desegregation to a Black slum community, while others saw it as another instance of whites taking land that they wanted to develop while disregarding the opinion of the residents. The people of Africville had lost their homes, their businesses and their livelihood. But to most of the residents, the biggest loss was their sense of community, their circle of support and the place where they had a sense of belonging.
This incident has become known as one of the most severe episodes of racial discrimination in Canadian history. But what is surprising is that few Canadians have ever even heard of Africville. Many former Africville residents spoke out about their loss and it has become the rallying point for Nova Scotia's Black community to fight racism and to educate others on diversity. Above all, Africville has become a symbol of the link between social well-being and community heritage for all Canadians.
Formation of Black United Front: The Black United Front also known as BUF was a Black Nationalist organization based in Halifax, in the Civil Rights era (1955 to 1968). BUF was greeted with mixed reviews in the black and white communities. It was founded by Burnley "Rocky" Jones in 1965. The motivations for this organization branched from a history of community activism (usually in the church) with family, negative personal experiences in schooling, a desire to travel and gain exposure as well as housing and employment needs. The BUF is an organization made up of concerned and committed individuals who have united to assume responsibility for working and leading the struggle for a better life for themselves and their children. The Black United Front is a broad-based organization which includes all social, political, religious and cultural sections of the Black community.
Women's stories: For the community historians, ordinary women who chose to work together in their churches and other organizations, almost all have been involved in community work prior to the civil right era. In the study, a number of reasons behind women choosing to become involved in the Black Power Movement are outlined below.
"It's hard breaking down barriers, and that's why I ended up in human rights; because I didn't want anyone to experience what I had... Because, I'd experienced racism in trying to get a job, and all through my life I knew of these divisions, so it was natural that I'd want to be involved with civil rights." – Ms. R., why she joined the BUF
"I'd come from watching people in the Caribbean, Black people, with important jobs, ministers of health and running government and top jobs were held, and that's where I think I learned some of the community activism, because I said we can do it. So when I came here I found that I had difficulty in buying houses. I said this was not acceptable. Tupper St. was dilapidated, the houses were dilapidated, and you mean the only places I can live is between these three streets I said "We should do something about it". The houses needed improvement, and our money should determine where I live; it shouldn't be determined because of my race". – Ms. I., on the impetus behind starting a program
"The reason I was so involved because at the time I was a young woman and back then times weren't all that good. When I first got married, I grew up. I had a wood stove which I didn't like, could never make a fire. I really got involved we wanted better housing, and with the Black United Front at that time we were working with Dr. Oliver and I lived in a little house when I first got married, which was very small, which belonged to my in-laws. So then they came out with this project. They were going to build a housing subdivision. So I really got involved with community work because we needed better housing. I had two sons; I lost one son at six years old and I still have one son alive. And I had four girls. Having that number of children, always looking for the future and to better yourself. If you're not involved in the community, you don't have a say". – Ms. M., why she joined the BUF
"The Monitoring Committee which was a watchdog in a sense for our education system and our schools, that looked at what was going on in our schools. And out of that – even though they don't want to say it – out of that came the BLAC Report and all of that. A lot of things that have happened today came out of the blood, sweat, and tears of what happened in our communities." – Ms. T., Community Historian
Racism (as defined by the African Canadians) is: The social reaction our of government structures which are a result of historical positions within society. It is any kind of system of inequality based on race which can occur in institutions such as public government bodies, private business corporations (such as media outlets), and universities (public and private). The term was introduced by Black Power activists in the 1960s.
Dr. Bernard joined Dalhousie University's Faculty of Social Work in 1990 and was appointed Director in 2001. Her research with Black men and the violence of racism, particularly in the criminal justice system, has had significant impact on not only academic work but also agency and community-based practice. She has made major academic and professional contributions to the field of Black masculinity, to the investigation of Black women's health and well-being, and to an Afrocentric understanding of the strengths of Black families.
She has provided leadership in developing culturally relevant services and culturally specific programs and has organized numerous conferences and workshops meeting the requests of various academic, practitioner and community groups for anti-racist, Afrocentric perspectives on community issues such as violence, gender, and health. Dr. Bernard has worked over the years to foster links among academics, frontline practitioners and the African-Nova Scotian community.
Dr. Bernard began her presentation with this quote: "in order to achieve social equality, it is necessary for Black people to organize themselves so that they can operate from a basis of power." Jules R. Oliver, "Editorial," The Grasp. Vol. 1, no. 1, August 1970. It is vitally important to remember that in order to achieve social equality, it is necessary for Black people to organize themselves so that they can operate from a basis of power.
Racism and capitalism have trampled the potential of Black people. If the potential of the Black woman is seen mainly as a supportive role for the Black man, then the Black woman becomes an object to be utilized by another human being. Her potential stagnates and she cannot begin to think in terms of self-determination for herself and all Black people. It is not right that her existence should be validated only by the existence of the Black man. The Black woman is demanding a new set of female definitions and recognition of herself of a citizen, companion and confidant, not a matriarchal villain or a step stool baby-maker. Role integration advocates the complementary recognition of man and woman, not the competitive recognition of same.
Both men and women were involved in making change, but role integration and recognizing women's efforts needs to be better manifested for women. This would mean having a broader mental and emotional growth in Black women and men as they share the responsibility of working towards liberation. Neither of them should be relegated to a narrow experience in life. Neither of them should have their potentiality for self-determination controlled and predetermined by the opposite sex. That is a type of slavery that will not deliver us as a people. That is a form of bondage which is an integral part of the racist and capitalist system which Black women and Black men must work to oppose and overthrow.
During the 1960s the Black Power movement did not immediately fix all of the political problems faced by African Americans, the movement did contribute to the development of black politics both directly and indirectly. Black Power activists approached politics with vitality, variety, wit, and creativity that shaped the way future generations approached dealing with America's societal problems. These activists capitalized on the nation's recent awareness of the political nature of oppression, a primary focus of the Civil Rights Movement, developing numerous political action groups and grass roots community associations to remedy the situation.
The 1960s and 1970s represented an era of transformation and awakening for many young people, and especially for people of African descent living in the Americas. There has been a great deal written about the experiences of African Americans, Africans and people of African descent in the Caribbean relative to the Black Power movement. However, in our experience in writing about other aspects of African Canadian history, there is a dearth of information on the African Canadian experience. What has been written about to date focuses mainly on the ways in which the African American Black Power movement served to inspire and support the struggles of the people of African descent in Canada, failing to explore in depth the ways in which the particular history of migration and settlement of each region has shaped the ways in which African Canadians have approached their fight for human rights. In The Freedom Experience of Black's in Nova Scotia, we recognize that for Nova Scotians, there were a number of individuals, groups and circumstances which came together to impact the period under examination.
African Nova Scotians have fought in every war in which this country has been involved, first on the side of the British, as Canada remained a British colony, and for Canada, as a sovereign nation. Being able to fight (and die) for one's country is, of course, a right of every citizen. And for as long as Blacks have been resident in Canada, they have struggled to escape the constraints of racial oppression. As new settlers to the region, for each wave of Blacks that migrated to Nova Scotia from the late 1700s to the 1820s, the British promised freedom and land. Few received the land they were promised, and for those who did, it is well-documented that the land they received was of poor quality, and settlers were barely able to eke out a living. For generations the African Nova Scotians petitioned the various governments for assistance in a multitude of areas, rarely ever with success. They were still struggling against intolerance in the Province even after over three hundred years of presence.
Although African history did not begin with slavery, the enslavement of African peoples is part of their history that cannot be ignored because the legacy of slavery persists into the 21st century. Racial profiling is a legacy of slavery. The perceptions of Africans that were established during the days when their ancestors were enslaved are still in the minds of many of those who are in authority today. That is why we have seen a 52 per cent increase in the incarceration rate of African Canadians since 2000 and yet there has been no outcry. A quarter of a million conversations have been recorded by cops who demand identification from Black males.
The point system and prison system will land individuals in the realms of incarceration. Many youth are captured and held in the prison industrial complex with that experience beginning for some of them at the tender age of 12 years old before they have an opportunity to live. Many of them are also failed by the education system where racial profiling is a reality. In spite of this, some manage to survive, just as our ancestors found ways and means of surviving the brutality of chattel slavery.
We have learned that in order to achieve social equity it is necessary for Black people to organize themselves so that they can operate from a basis of power. The questions that remain are what lessons can we take from history and not repeat mistakes from the past? How can we move away from democratic ideals? How can we move away from ideologies of white Canadians which will guide us on the path of inclusion?
Do a Google image search for "philosopher" the results you get are mostly dead white guys with beards who look a little grumpy. Chike introduced his segment by proposing an example of doing a search on the Internet. Chike mentions that the dominant and stereotypical image of a philosopher is an older upper-class white man and although there may be some philosophers who fit this stereotype, there are many who do not. He then asked the audience to consider the possibility that there may be no more than two professional philosophers at Canadian universities who self-identify as Black: Chike himself and his colleague at Dalhousie University, Françoise Baylis who is a bioethicist who has written about her experiences as someone who self-identifies as Black but is generally perceived on the basis of her appearance as white. This would then make Chike the only visibly, self-identified Black philosopher at a Canadian university. Black philosophers are therefore, severely underrepresented in the field.
Philosophers come in a range of genders, colors, sizes, classes, ages. Our discipline isn't the rarefied domain of the sophisticated hyper-intellectual. It's simply the domain of people who like to think about philosophy. And people who like to think about philosophy can look like, well, pretty much anything. People can be judged as "less good" at philosophy because they don't fit someone's stereotypical image of a philosopher. And people can question their own ability to do philosophy - and sometimes even avoid philosophy entirely - because they think they "aren't really the type". Eurocentric philosophy excludes blacks from philosophy and perpetuates dominant white philosophy. Given the history of the West in general and Canada in particular, it is reasonable to see these absences, the absence in philosophy included, as linked to the operation or at least the side effects of systemic racism. It therefore reflects badly on philosophy in Canada when this absence is accepted, ignored, and, consequently, naturalized and perpetuated.
The symbolic value of philosophy. It is possible, of course, to think philosophers are smart but wasting their time, asking all these crazy questions about what we know and whether we can know that we know what we think we know, etc. That does not change the significance of the philosopher's reputation for stretching the powers of the mind. Think now about what it means for Black people to be almost totally absent from such a field. Those old yet persistent stereotypes about our intellectual limitations are reinforced by this absence and we need African Canadian philosophers in part because we need to crush such stereotypes once and for all.
We need African Canadian philosophy that reflects experience. It is possible to do philosophy focused on the African Canadian experience and such work needs to be done. This is why we do not only need African Canadian philosophers but we also need African Canadian philosophy, understood as a distinctive area of philosophy that emerges from and critically reflects upon the African Canadian experience.
This presentation focused on race, class, Black identity and multiculturalism. Isaac Saney also spoke about why the Cuban Revolution has exercised such a profound hold and influence on the world-wide Black struggle for equality, freedom, and self-determination. While it is understood that race is a social construct embedded in the history of empire and capitalism, it does have a concrete impact in the world and informs perceptions of value, meaning and identity in relation to geography, culture and history.The Canadian experience has been front and centre in debates in social and political spheres about the idea and practice of multiculturalism. This is, indeed, appropriate, considering Canada's place in the world as the country that has entrenched multiculturalism as official policy and celebrated it as a distinguishing characteristic more than any other. But what has this meant for Black people? Voices from within the African Canadian community have differed on this question.
The poet M. NourbeSe Philip wrote a powerful piece, originally published in the Toronto Star in 1990, called "Why Multiculturalism Can't End Racism," in which she called multiculturalism a "fancy... piece of window dressing" that cannot address the inequalities affecting people of colour in this country and, what is worse, can end up distracting people from noticing those inequalities, thus perpetuating them.
Marlene NourbeSe Philip argues that multiculturalism is a concept with an unclear definition and carries heavy political implications. Multiculturalism has been interpeteted several ways by various individuals in the ever-changing Canadian demographic. It is interpreted as the ideology to foster equality and racial and cultural discrimination and is used to emulate Canada's diverse populace.
In reality, multiculturalism has worked out to heighten differences between newcomers and the host country, rather than diminish them. It has taught us tolerance rather than encouraging acceptance. What it has lead to is divisiveness. To sum up the discussion on Canadian multiculturalism, one might say that this policy/ideology has managed to look after the immediate reality of a diverse and multi-ethnic society. While focusing too much on cultural identity and selectively racializing immigrants, multiculturalism fails to address structural and systemic inequalities, issues of prejudices, racism and Eurocentric supremacy. Some may argue that this policy and ideology never intended to address these issues. The two objectives of the Multiculturalism policy in the Canadian context, is to promote cultural retention and social equality. The first objective falls short of being implemented because of the lack of political demand and pressure on key cultural, educational, and political institutions to fundamentally change their politics. Since non-European immigrant groups participate in societal institutions under the conditions of the dominant values and practices, the dominant groups enjoy more rights and powers than the non-dominant groups and their values and practices are therefore-understood as the 'norm.Thus, Canada's version of multiculturalism turns into a version of assimilation.
Session summaries were prepared by volunteers from their notes taken during the workshops. While the CRRF fulfills its function as an organization which stimulates discussion on race relations issues, and provides opportunities for experts and communities to network and exchange information on these questions, the posting of these summaries does not necessarily imply endorsement of the ideas and opinions expressed herein.