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Just How Systemic Is Anti-Black Racism in Canada? Part 1: Africville

We’ve all learnt about how escaped slaves from America used the Underground Railroad to come to the land of equality and freedom- Canada. But how many of us know about the communities they lived in when they came to Canada? How many of us know what happened to those communities? 

The story of systemic Anti-Black Racism did not begin 5, 10, or even 50 years ago. It began over 100 years ago in Bedford, a community in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here, Black people once unified in a home they called Africville. Africville was the first region in Canada that was once owned by a large population of African-Canadians, and perhaps the last….


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The Promise of Africville

During the war of 1812, escaped slaves from the United States of America were enlisted in the war to defend Canada. As leverage to participate in the war, they were promised land in Nova Scotia where they would be allowed to live freely.

  • Therefore, Bedford became a place built upon the promises of the war of 1812.
  • African-Canadians in Bedford created the largest community of Black people in Canada until its deconstruction by the late 1960’s.

What started as a safe place for Black folks to call home, quickly became an economically and socially strong neighbourhood, built by the community. Black folks managed banks, postal offices, restaurants, churches, and other prosperous businesses during its prime.

  • The name for this region was in honour and acknowledgement of their roots and their ability to live free while in North America.

What became of Africville?

Environmental racism, the way in which marginalized communities are more greatly exposed to environmental hazards, waste, and pollution, mainly perpetrated by the predominantly white municipality ruined:

  • Black businesses,
  • Black enterprises,
  • Black identity,
  • and ultimately Black bodies. 

Black businesses: By the 1900s, most of the pork industry in Halifax was monopolized by Black people within Africville as they were willing to both raise and butcher the pigs in the city. By 1915, the city passed a law that made the raising of pigs within the city illegal. Thus, this business could no longer sustain their community in the same way. Additionally, the land given to black people in Halifax in the first place, was -at the time of appointment- considered to be the least appealing part of the city. 

Black Enterprises: The destruction of Black enterprises began with the construction of a prison adjacent to the Bedford Basin, the creation of the infectious disease hospital in the area, and the relocation of disposal dumps in the very Basin that was used by the community.

Black identity: The destruction of Black identity occurred when Black citizen’s voices were ignored by the city council and non-black city inhabitants. For example, voting on the relocation of African-Canadians in Africville took place with very few members of the community in attendance. Black folks became sick from the contamination of wells and the constant outbreaks of illnesses, and people lost their jobs and the community was no longer able to sustain itself. These issues took a toll on those living in Africville and can be blamed on calculated and systematic issues.  

Black Bodies: The neighbourhood was soon categorized as the slums of the city and thus, unlivable, forcing people to leave the place they called home. Homes were abolished, destroyed, and swept away. Black folks were systematically forced to leave a place they built around their identity. Fundamentally, they were stripped of the freedom they fought for.


How systemic was the fall of Africville?

narrative

At the time, the city said that the living conditions of this area were not up to par and they would not fund renovations because the community was already using up a lot of welfare in the region. It would cost them more to rebuild than it would to reallocate the folks living there. Yet, in Remembering Africville, a documentary by Shelagh Mackenzie, former inhabitants of Africville said that even at the worst point of Africville, there were more White people on social welfare than Black people. 

By framing the destruction of Africville and relocation of its Black inhabitants as a favour to the city and to the surrounding community, the city was pretending to be something that they were not: caring.  

In fact, members of the community recount being threatened to death by construction workers. These construction workers threatened them with their buildozers, and stated that if they did not relocate they would die with the community.

holistic destruction 

What the construction workers did not realize at the time was the fact that Black folks were already dying with the community. It is clear that they lost a part of that culture (and of themselves) when Africville was destroyed. 

As the church was destroyed and the physical environment was deconstructed, the identity, strength, and freedom of this community was also deconstructed. The area they were relocated to was not only a poor living condition to reside in – AND an area where mobilization of Black people would be practically impossible. 

Linda Mantley, one of the last activists continuing the fight for restoration of Africville, grew up in the community. She describes Africville as a happy and unified neighbourhood consisting of about 400 people. She says Africville was much like any African community, where every elder was called “uncle” and “auntie.” She continues to feel the anger from the destruction of her home and family and continues to seek justice for their losses. 

destruction of the Black Spirit

It goes without saying that one’s spirit or heart is what keeps people going through rough times. The product of systemic Anti-Black Racism and particularly environmental Anti-Black Racism is one that targets the spirit of a Black community. 

There is something to be said in the fact that one can get a new home, one can receive clean water, or compensation. But one cannot simply regain their hope or sense of identity. Hope is even harder to conceptualize when no one but those affected seemed to care

  • No one cared that the city monopolized from the less educated older Black people they claimed to consult instead of asking the thoughtful and educated younger people.
  • No one cared that kids were almost killed during the destruction of their homes. No one cared that the city was lying to these individuals. 
  • No one cared that people were stripped of the identity that they fought so hard to have. Most importantly, no one fought for them. 

Simply put, the lack of hope that White people within the community had regarding the Black population rubbed off on them and thus they began to lose hope in themselves and moved. 


The Bottom Line 

The actions that took place in Africville were carefully calculated to benefit some and keep others in line. We know that this was not a singular event. Immigrant communities in Toronto are often challenged with the same city council bullying, and areas throughout Canada face the same targeted environmental racism. 

It is easy to think that systematic Anti-Black Racism has only been a recent issue, but from the very beginning of Black freedom in North America, Black lives have not seemed to matter. The systemic maneuvers that make Anti-Black Racism effective in Canada, is due to its ability to target and diminish the Black spirit. 

Africville began in 1915 and ended in 1960. The patience and slow escalation of events is another reason why systematic Anti-Black Racism in Canada has been so effective. It is a meticulous, well thought out, and effective process to maintain a social order. 


After Africville 

In the next portion of this series, we will be discussing more about what is currently happening in Canada in terms of systemic Anti-Black Racism and how these themes of timeliness, destruction of Black spirit, and the stripping of freedom continue to be an active issue Black communities face in Canada after 100 years.


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For more information I encourage you to read: 

  • McCurdy, Howard. Africville: Environmental Racism in Faces of Environmental Racism: Confronting Issues of Social Justice (1992).
  • Allen, Denise Izzard. Ghosts of Africville: former residents of Africville are still fighting municipal planning decisions in Nova Scotia.  29:1 Alternatives Journal. (Winter 2003).
  • Remembering Africville. Directed by Shelagh Mackenzie
  • Clairmont, D. (2009). Razing africville: A geography of racism. Canadian Journal of Sociology  (Online), 34(3), 920-922.
  • Demont, J. (2017, Oct 11). The story of africville a ‘powerful’ one. Chronicle – Herald
  • Demont, J. (2018, Feb 07). “The ‘good life’ in africville cut short.” Chronicle – Herald
  • Bullard, R. D. (2002). Confronting environmental racism in the twenty-first century.Global Dialogue, 4(1), 34-48. 
  • Turner, R. (2016). The slow poisoning of black bodies: A lesson in environmental racism and hidden violence. Meridians, 15(1), 189-204.
    Gosine, A. Teelucksingh, C. (2008). Environmental Racism in Canada.