Before Canada confederated, the results of the Atlantic slave trade remained pervasive in Nova Scotia. Many of the first Black people who arrived there came from across the border as slaves —according to a 2009 paper by historian Harvey Amani Whitfield, at least 1,232 slaves were brought to Nova Scotia by slave-owning Loyalists following the American Revolution.
The province wasn’t perceived as a major slave colony at the time, but it was still common for wealthy families to keep “bound servants” without being held to any legal standard of care for them. For instance, historical records attest that illiterate Black servants would be tricked into signing contracts that lasted for much longer than they agreed to and only paid in a lump sum at the end of the contract. The “masters” would occasionally terminate the contract immediately before it ended, leaving the servants without any payment for their years of labour.
Many Black Canadians today feel that the government of Canada has failed to properly address this injustice.
At the end of this year’s Black History Month, a group of Black history experts confronted the Senate of Canada and requested reparations for the region’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.
“What we’re asking for includes two steps: first, recognition and an apology; then, demonstrate leadership so that other western countries that have had a slave trade do the same thing,” said Marjorie Villemarche, director general of an immigrant support agency called La Maison d’Haïti, in the Senate’s press release on the subject. “This crime against humanity should be dealt with in terms of reconciliation and reparations.”
A United Nations measure deemed “the international decade”—10 years which, starting in 2015, will be dedicated partially to protect the rights of Black North Americans—has been publicly supported by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This was also discussed at the Senate meeting, raised by the first African-Nova Scotian woman in the Senate, Wanda Thomas Bernard.
“On January 30, 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the international decade offers a framework to better address the very real and unique challenges that Black Canadians face,” said Bernard, in the press release. “By working together, we can combat anti-Black racism and discrimination and deliver better outcomes for Black Canadians.”
Leland Harper, an instructor of philosophy at KPU who is half Black, conducts research on racial solidarity and identities. He doubts that reparations to Black Nova Scotians will ever be made due to how complicated that process is, but feels that an admission of guilt from the government is feasible.
“An apology would be a good thing for the interested parties,” he says. “It could maybe provide some sort of closure, some acknowledgement in some sense that the government was involved in some way, at least in permitting some things that shouldn’t have happened.”
Still, he adds, “It wouldn’t mean much to me unless it was backed up by some legislation to make changes or some tangible thing, but I don’t see that happening, at least not now.”
Issuing an apology, as an admission of guilt, could open the door for others to legally demand reparations, Harper notes. He theorizes that this could be one of the reasons why the federal government may refuse to give a formal apology for Nova Scotia’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.
“I don’t know enough about what the legal repercussions of that could be,” he says. “But there are plenty of times when we know somebody did something and they’re just going to stay silent.”