Monday, February 5, 2007

Harper ignores bicentenary of canadian slavery ...

Are we in denial over slave role?

Canada largely ignores bicentenary marking history of a monstrous crime

Feb 05, 2007 TheStar

The map of slavery runs its bloody trail through Canada. But, shhhhh. Our governments are not about to remind us.

Imagine the most vile violations of human rights – legalized mass murder and subjugation on a horrific international scale – and you might peer into the cauldron of a brutal and fiendish system that enslaved tens of millions of Africans for the enrichment of the western world.

This monstrous wrong, so barbaric and debilitating that its effects still scar Africa and her descendants in Europe and the Americas, is being commemorated by governments across the globe this year.

But scarcely in Canada.

A United Nations resolution last December declared 2007 as the year to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of trafficking of human beings between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas.

Canada, along with Britain and most countries, signed the resolution. But the Stephen Harper government has no plans to commemorate the year or what it stands for.

At the provincial government, the bicentennial isn't top of mind; never mind the hundreds of thousands of black Ontarians and several black settlements in southwestern Ontario, dating back centuries.

Citizenship Minister Mike Colle says he is only now being briefed and has asked community organizers to "develop something and talk to my staff and we'll see what we can do."

At Toronto city hall, the official response is a last-minute effort to support a Toronto citizens group launch of a series of events on Feb. 11.

"Honestly, I don't think it was on anybody's radar," admitted a city official.

It's as if the maafa, the African Holocaust, among the most unspeakable evils in human history, never happened. Or that the descendants of 70 million Africans captured (the figure is in dispute) and some 10 million enslaved (generally agreed) in Europe and the Americas don't warrant a commemoration of their spilt blood and spent labour.

In the U.K., the government has issued a commemorative stamp, is funding national events with £20 million ($46 million), and a national memorial service is planned for Westminster Abbey next month. Anti-slavery groups, churches and activists have swelled a year-long roster of events

"The slave trade was a profoundly shameful crime against humanity," Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair said last year, in announcing bicentenary events.

In the U.S., the commemoration will spread into 2008. Museums, universities and groups plan exhibits and symposiums and memorials.

Jamaica pushed for the UN resolution and has been planning events for the past year. Many Caribbean countries are doing likewise. And Ghana – Ground Zero for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of captured Africans bound for slavery – is combining bicentenary events with celebrations of its 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.


There are local events planned in Halifax, Buxton, Ont., Owen Sound, and now Toronto. But it's been left to tiny groups and individuals, with no funding, and little or no support. And even they have been too timid, too late and too quiet about the anniversary.

One who has seized the historical moment is Afua Cooper, a professor, historian, poet and author whose book, The Hanging of Angelique, is turning heads in the publishing world. The book tells of a slave girl in 1753 who was hanged for burning down her mistress's house – and with it, a third of old Montreal.

Disturbed that no events had been earmarked for the Greater Toronto Area and few across the country, Cooper formed the Committee to Commemorate and Memorialize the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

"The fact is that the federal and provincial governments have to step up to the plate and fund a secretariat for the bicentenary," she says. "It is not too late."

Cooper and the coalition of labour, school boards, religious groups, literary associations, student groups and libraries have compiled a list of events, hoping financial support will flow.

This includes major conferences with international experts on the slave trade and its after-effects, an "abolition film festival" running parallel with the Toronto film fest in September, and Emancipation Day celebrations in August, featuring the contributions of blacks to life in Toronto.

Cooper and others, such as award-winning author George Elliott Clarke, decry what they see as the whitewashing of history in Canada and the invisibility of the historical accounts of the black presence.

"Canadian history, insofar as its black history is concerned, is a drama punctuated with disappearing acts," Cooper writes in her book. "Black history is treated as a marginal subject. In truth, it has been bulldozed and plowed over, slavery in particular.

"Slavery has disappeared from Canada's historical chronicles, erased from its memory and banished to the dungeons of its past. This is a country where the enslavement of black people was institutional and practised for the better part of three centuries."

When John Graves Simcoe arrived in Upper Canada (now Ontario) as lieutenant governor in 1792, slavery was already an established fact among the population of 14,000. Nine members of the Legislative Council, appointed rulers, were slave-owners or members of slave-owning families. Six of the 16 elected legislators owned slaves.

Canada's first known African settler, Olivier LeJeune, came to Quebec as a slave boy in 1628, owned by a Jesuit priest, Father Paul LeJeune from France. By 1688 the population of New France (Quebec) numbered 9,000 and the white settlers needed workers to do the heavy lifting.

Though French law forbade slavery, an official letter from Louis XIV on May 1, 1689, allowed it in Canada. Africans became field hands, domestics, the ones forced to do the hard work the colonialists refused. Slavery here was less prevalent than south of the border, but the attitude was similar.

In inventories, slaves were often listed with the animals. "A Negro was a slave everywhere and no one was astonished to find him in bondage," writes Daniel Hill in The Freedom Seekers.

The early blacks came by several routes. Some came as black Loyalists who had sided with Britain in its losing war with the Americans. Others arrived as slaves of white Loyalists.

But as Lawrence Hill captures in his new book, The Book of Negroes, many came – including some 3,000 who landed in Nova Scotia, from Manhattan, in 1793 – as free men and women.

Historians believe another 40,000 fugitive slaves were spirited into Canada, fleeing slave conditions in America. Their numbers peaked between 1785 and 1865.

It would be 1834 before slavery was officially abolished in Canada and the entire British empire. But the anti-slavery efforts of Simcoe and others had made the practice less and less tolerated in Ontario; fugitives of American slavery ventured beyond the southern Ontario regions of Windsor, Chatham, Amherstburg, Niagara and St. Catharines, as far north as Owen Sound in search of freedom.

In the foreword to Cooper's book, author and University of Toronto professor Clarke, writes:

"Anyone desperate to believe that Canada was slave-free, or that Canadian slavery was gentle, must close this book now. But those seeking truth, those who want to understand Canada's settler-barbarism, will find this book impossible to ignore and impossible to forget."

By now, it should be common knowledge, passed on through our school's history books, that Canada benefited from the trafficking in black people for more than 200 years. The forcefully extracted blood and sweat and labour and tears of Africans provided the underpinnings of an empire with global reach and might. As a colony of the British Empire, Canada reaped benefits from this evil.

But, often, even the benign facts of the presence of blacks in early Canada is erased from the curriculum.

At the launch of Black History Month at Toronto city hall last Thursday, Cooper gave a lecture on the black presence in Canada.

Several among the 50 attendees bristled over what they call the denial of the black presence in Canada – even though our school boards have all the information available to them.

"You can go through the entire school system and not learn a damn thing about black people in Canada," said Yola Grant, a parent and lawyer. "The message is, we are crazy to have a different reality."

In passing the resolution, the UN asked that the year be used as a learning experience, a time to strengthen the resolve to end the enslaving of humans around the world and a time of repentance and forgiveness.

But if the victims themselves are not strong enough to demand recognition? Or connected enough to make the case for it? And a society that benefited from slavery doesn't step up and take responsibility? Where, then, is the chance of reconciliation?

Imagine years hence and it is the 200th anniversary of the Jewish Holocaust. Do you think it will sneak up on anyone? It shouldn't. It won't.

But here we are in 2007, with all our modern tools of communication and memory of the slave trade is threatened with extinction.

Where are the black historical societies? The associations of black this and African that and Afro the other? Where are the black writers and columnists, that our federal government can virtually ignore such a monumental anniversary?

It's enough to make a descendant of slaves, a grown man, cry. Or vow, never again.