Black lives matter—at settlement, Confederation and 150 years later

Afua Cooper is putting Black history into the Canadian imagination. It’s about time.
May 1, 2017

“I am standing in a place filled with monuments for the early explorers, pioneers, and heroic settlers. I cannot help but think that this memorialization is so one-sided, so monolithic, so homogenous. Europeans glorifying and idolizing themselves,” writes author, intellectual, poet and activist Afua Cooper in the preface to her 2006 book, The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. “Why is there no monument to the slaves? Those who had their lives, labour, and dreams stolen to build up a new colony and satisfy the greed of Whites?” 

Cooper, currently the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University, has spent a long academic and artistic career posing tough questions about the absence of Black voices in Canadian history. Why, she asked the Royal Ontario Museum in 1989, did it ignore the advice of the city’s Black community by going ahead with an exhibit on Africa that perpetuated anti-Black racism? (The ROM apologized in 2016.) Why, she asked Conservative MP Peter MacKay in 2012, did the Harper government ignore the experience of Black Canadians who settled in Nova Scotia after the War of 1812 in its 200-year commemoration of the event? 

Why, she asked Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Halifax Mayor Michael Savage in November, were they “passing the buck” instead of trying to understand and address the root causes of gun violence among young Black men in the city? “We want these youth and future generations to have a chance to grow up and grow old. And I want to remind our politicians that Black people vote, and Black Lives Matter!” Cooper said in an open letter published by the CBC. 

This last question deals with a live issue—racial inequality in cities across Canada—but one with deep roots in the historical experience of Black Canadians in this country. Roots that are frequently ignored in high-school and even university curricula. Monitor editor Stuart Trew spoke to Cooper at the end of March about the interdisciplinary minor in Black and African diaspora studies she launched last year at Dalhousie, her role in a scholarly panel looking at Lord Dalhousie’s history as it relates to slavery and race, and why Canada is more interested in a party for its 150th than what could be an exciting conversation about its historical legacy.

Tell us a bit about the new minor in Black and African studies. 

We launched the minor in September 2016 and I created a new course—a core course for the minors—which is an introduction to African studies. I had 66 students, which was fantastic, and they all stayed until the end. It was a tremendous learning experience for both parties, for myself and for the students. I enjoyed teaching it. I enjoyed creating new knowledge. The challenge was, how do you create 400 years of content in terms of the Black presence in Canada. Because I do believe that less is more. I didn’t want to overwhelm students with all this information. 

One of the things I had the students do—every single one of them—was get up for about two minutes and say why you were taking this course. Why are you interested in the minor or why are you interested in Black studies? What do you hope to gain from it? You could see people rolling their eyes. Nobody wants to do that! They just want to get their credit and go. But I had some really, really interesting results. 

One girl said the course gave her a language to express herself and to comprehend what she was going through on campus. She’s a young Black girl, she came from the West Indies, she was an international student. And she said, “I didn’t know it was racism. I came from St. Kitts to study at Dalhousie and for two years it was as if I was wandering in the wilderness.” She said the course allowed her to name what was happening to her. She said, “I was at a point where I was going to pack up and go home,” and that was very, very profound. 

Another girl of South Asian origin said she took the course because while she was growing up in New Brunswick she was called a nigger. And she said, “I’m Indian, my parents are from India, but I have curly hair and I have dark skin and the response of people to me is that they think I’m Black.” She said she grew up with the epithet nigger “being hurled at me and I wanted to understand what it was about Black people that people find so offensive.” She has been niggerized her whole life even though she wasn’t African. 

I would get these heartbreaking responses, but they were really enlightening. A young White male from Halifax (in his second year at Dalhousie) said he went to a local high school and at the cafeteria all the Black kids stayed together, all the White kids stayed together, and he said “I knew there was something off about that.” But the teachers wouldn’t talk about it. “No one would give us an understanding as to why that was happening in this day and age,” he said, and “I felt this course provided me with an answer I’ve been grappling for since my teenage years.” 

The young man said the kids are segregated in the cafeteria: “I don’t know why, I suspect it has something to do with race.” He didn’t’ know the history of that race relationship. It wasn’t taught in high school. My course is probably the only course he’ll get in his entire university career that speaks to that. We are really operating at a deficit in terms of creating graduates and students and individuals who have cultural literacy, one result of which is empathy. This program attempts to create empathy for other people among the students. And also to say that yes, Black Lives Matter. Black people matter. 

I counter anti-Black racism. It’s kind of everywhere—the idea that Black people have lesser value than other people. There is a global anti-Black racism, not just in Canada and the United States. You see it all over the world. The people who are being shot down in the streets in Brazil are so-called mulatto and Black people. A friend of mind just came from Peru. He’s a successful businessman from Toronto, a young Black man, and he went to Peru to source fabric for sweaters and hats and so on. A Peruvian contact welcomed him at the airport. And when they went to a nightclub on one of their days off, they wouldn’t allow him in. They wouldn’t allow this Black man in. Because in Lima, Peru, the Black body is marginalized. His host said, “No, he’s not a local Peruvian, he’s from Canada.” The bouncer wouldn’t let him in, and my friend said it was so humiliating. 

Europe is also a scary place to go to right now as a Black person. I was there in 2016. Nothing negative happened to me, but the rhetoric and the language that’s coming from certain national governments…. In Paris you see the African venders selling these trinkets in a place called Château Rouge, and then you hear a shout and you see some people running. The cops are running them down, and people have to show their ID, and if you’re “illegal” you’re taken to jail. And I’m thinking, “Oh my god, these people are running in the streets and the police are running them down and my two daughters witnessed this. It was crazy.” And people go through this every day. 

I think our protection was that we were speaking English. People say, “Oh, they’re not from Africa.” They think we’re Americans. And that offered us some kind of protection, because we are cast into the Anglophone world, which is seen to be a world of power at least. We’re not from Senegal or Gabon or Ghana. Otherwise we could fall victim to whatever those people are falling victim to. Anti-Black racism is global. And the minor [at Dalhousie] is part of humanizing Black people.” 

Hopefully this program in Black studies is still there for generations. It’s interdisciplinary. We’re drawing courses from across the faculty of arts and social sciences. One of the things we want to do, our major ambition, is to take some of our students to the African continent to study abroad. Maybe for two weeks on the chemin des esclaves (the slave route) in either Benin or Senegal, to give it an international dimension. We’re putting the proposal together now and aiming for 2019. 

Distinct from the minor, you’re also chairing a research project looking into the legacy of George Ramsay (Lord Dalhousie) and the creation of the university almost 200 years ago. 

That’s right. The lead researcher (Jalana Lewis) and I went to the U.K. in January where we did research in the National Archives in London, and the Scottish records in their archive, on Dalhousie’s time in Nova Scotia. We also did research at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa and the Nova Scotia public archives to look at Dalhousie’s administration when he was governor of the province from 1816 to 1820, after which time he left Nova Scotia to take the role of governor general for British North America. But while he was in Nova Scotia, that was when Dalhousie University was established in 1818.

We’ve been conducting research on the man, on his administration and on the university itself—a history of the institution and of higher learning in Canada. It’s been pretty intense. I think the core documents with regard to Lord Dalhousie and the Black community are the letters that he sent to Lord Bathurst in England, who was secretary of state for the colonies, concerning the Black refugee community that had arrived in Nova Scotia at precisely the same time Lord Dalhousie had arrived in 1816. 

The War of 1812 had ended. These Black refugees, as they were called, had fought for the British. When the war ended, the British evacuated 2,000 of them to Nova Scotia. I’m not talking about the loyalists—that was 40 years in the past—and so these refugees were British subjects. They came to Nova Scotia and were promised the usual: land and seed, protection and citizenship and so forth.

What happened was that after the war there was an economic slump. And you know what happens in those situations: people turn on the immigrants, who are taking “our” jobs, etc. And that’s precisely what happened 200 years ago. Lord Dalhousie went on a campaign to get them out of the province. He even visited refugee settlements and said, “Look, I will write to your former masters in the south, I will say to them that you’re very sorry that you left, and I’ll give you a letter of recommendation, and you can go back to your master, he will forgive you, and you guys will continue on being slaves.” 

It’s so preposterous what he did! And it didn’t work. The refugees said, “No thank you.” And he (Dalhousie) tried to get them to go to Sierra Leone, and convinced 95 of them to migrate to Trinidad. The long and short of it was that he wasn’t successful in turfing them out, but at the same time he was successful in marginalizing them socially, politically and economically. That’s one of the legacies of Lord Dalhousie. It’s almost like ethnic cleansing: get them out.

When Dalhousie University was established, even though it had this grand objective of being ecumenical, being open to all—meaning all White males—Blacks, even if they were qualified, and First Nations communities were not welcome. Looking 200 years into the future, an imperative of this project is next year’s bicentenary of the university. There will be, as you can imagine, celebration, commemoration and so on. But the president of Dalhousie, Richard Florizone, wanted to look at what it means to have 200 years of history in an institution of higher education.

What does it mean now that we have this consciousness of diversity and inclusion? How diverse or inclusive was Dalhousie University 200 years ago? It wasn’t. It excluded, as did many other Canadian institutions of higher learning, people of colour, and other particular people in particular communities. We’re writing a report with suggestions for outcomes, legacies. We’re going to be giving public presentations, the first in May or June. The university should be commended because it didn’t have to do this. They could have said it’s going to be all cakes and balloons and we don’t want to know about this stuff, about getting rid of Black people.

Do you think we’re going to get any more than cakes and balloons during the Canada 150 year, from the federal point of view? 

Well yes, if you look at some of the criteria for these (Canada 150) grants, I thought, “Well, I’d better not apply.” I know people in Ontario who applied and had to change their project because they were told we’re (the government) not really into the bad history stuff, so if you could slant your project, it’s more about celebrating 150. Not about commemorating. That’s fine, if that’s what the government wants. But what do ordinary people want? What do certain communities want? I think people are free and have every right to construct a Canada 150 event that suits them.

It seems like if you can’t talk about your country’s history on an anniversary like 150, when can you talk about it? 

Absolutely. It was also like that during the War of 1812 commemoration. When that was happening, I was in Nova Scotia and I put in an application—it wasn’t funded—that would look at the impact of the war on the Atlantic. And they weren’t interested. They were more interested in the Black community in Upper Canada, like Richard Pierpoint and the Coloured Corps. I wrote a letter to Peter MacKay, who was in government at that time, since he’s a Nova Scotian, and he ought to have known better. But when he made his speech about Black participation in the War of 1812, he just focused on Upper Canada and the Coloured Corps. It’s as if he had no clue that the refugees of the War of 1812 came here to the Maritime provinces, and the struggles they went to to establish themselves. 

So you’re right: if we can’t talk about these issues at the commemorative moment, when can we? It almost makes the work illegitimate, or it delegitimizes our work. It’s almost like what we do, or who we are, is invisible. When a government minister gets up there and praises Canada and says, “Isn’t it wonderful that there was no slavery in Canada!” I’m thinking, maybe I’m just wrong! (laughs). Maybe all my research in the various archives across this country is just false information, fake news! I spend my entire life doing this and then someone gets up and in 30 seconds negates completely what I’ve been doing. I think, “Oh Afua, maybe you’re the one with the problem” (laughs). 

It’s the government’s thing, their agenda. I think it would be very useful to say, “Let’s reflect on 150, but let’s also celebrate.” And let’s also remember that Nova Scotia did not want to join Confederation. It’s not the story that you hear. Joseph Howe, one of the reformer premiers, thought it was a bad idea. He thought Nova Scotia would be subservient, and that’s exactly what happened. He didn’t want Nova Scotia to be a part of New England either. Nova Scotia was bought out by the Canadas, by Ontario and Quebec, but didn’t think Confederation was a fantastic idea at all.

So let’s reflect on these things, let’s engage in discussion and pull out the old documents to look at what John A. Macdonald said and Joseph Howe and George Etienne Cartier, the people we call the Fathers of Confederation. And look at what we call civil society. What did journalists say? What were women’s groups saying? What were the First Nations communities saying? What were the Black intellectuals saying? That to me is infinitely more exciting. 

There were Black intellectuals in Ontario who had opinions and ideas about Confederation. By and large they thought it was good because they were aware of the expansionist march of the Unite States to the north, and they thought, “Nope, that’s not good.” Confederation offered more protection, because of course they were looking at the security and safety of Black people. And they felt both would be undermined by an American regime.

Macdonald was a hugely problematic figure—for First Nations communities, for Métis communities, for Black communities, even though he had a Black barber. Like Lord Dalhousie he didn’t want Black people in the province. When we think of Macdonald’s National Policy we mostly remember building a railway from coast to coast. And we know that it led to the two rebellions by Louis Riel and the decimation of First Nations communities on the prairies, the decimation of the buffalos because you’re driving these rails across the country. 

Another plank [of the National Policy] was immigration—to bring people in to populate the prairies. But Macdonald didn’t want Black people, even though a few decades before 1867 you had the Underground Railroad, you had African-American runaways coming into Canada and officially more or less welcomed. But under the new Canada, Sir. John A. did not think they were desirable immigrants at all. In fact, he said Black men were rapists and a threat to White womanhood. 

If this is the moment we confederated, this is our first prime minister, this is his attitude toward the Black community, I think we would have such a rich discussion, but that’s not what the government wants. Imagine me putting together a proposal like that: I want to investigate John A.’s relationship to the Black community at this moment when Confederation was happening. It would never be funded! (laughs). 

Other than the Dalhousie project and your new undergraduate program, are you working on anything else right now? 

I’m writing a book called Slaves in Court, and it’s a fun book. I’m looking at enslaved Canadians who took their owners to court and sued for their freedom. Some of them lost. In fact, most of them lost. A few won. But these people, the audacity of taking your master to court and saying “wrongful ownership!” “He stole me! I was stolen!” (laughs). 

You said once that when we suppress these stories they have a tendency to come back and “bust things up.” Could you give an example of what you mean by that?

Let’s fast-forward to today and look at the Black Lives Matter movement, not in America but in Canada. I happened to see something on TV where this man was trying to convince this Black man in the Black Lives Matter movement that things weren’t so bad in Canada. The poor man was saying, you know, “I live in Canada, I don’t live in the United States—what you’re saying is irrelevant.” I couldn’t believe there was someone trying to convince somebody that he wasn’t really oppressed. Maybe a little oppressed, but not too much. 

The Black Lives Matter movement is one example of not listening to, in this case, the Black community. The Idle No More movement is another. We need to listen to all people who are here in this land, to all Canadians. We can’t let people say, “It’s not so bad. You have to wait your turn. Maybe 20 more years down the line we can listen to you.” Because things are going to bust up. People are going to block highways. People may get even more violent if you don’t listen, or if you make invalid what they have to say, their concerns.

I think we could have a real bust up in this country if you look at the state of Blackness. Forty-two per cent of the kids in Toronto who are received by child services are Black kids. And we have massive incarceration rates of young Black men. The federal system went through the roof between 2014 and 2015, according to Howard Sapers (former Correctional Investigator of Canada), by over 100%. 

That’s a crisis for Canada, a crisis for the Black community. But it’s silence from the federal government. Silence, silence, silence. If you look at the indices that go toward making a good life and health and well-being for the Black community, you see the seizure of children by child services, massive incarceration rates, high-school dropouts, underemployment and so on. Everything that is going to rob a community of its well-being is present in the Black community. 

Of course you have Black Lives Matter and Black intellectuals calling people’s attention to the issue. But there is no response from people in power, from people who can make a difference. So what can we do? What do we do? We take to the streets. We march. We protest. 

As an individual, as a Canadian, as a member of the Black community, as an intellectual, as a scholar, I fight the good fight. And it is a good fight. And I bear the burden, but it is a righteous burden. First and foremost, for me it’s about justice. And justice is good.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.