by Chevy X King
Basics Issue #10 (Aug/Sep 2008)
Today, peoples of African descent in Canada are referred to as “visible minorities” and are treated as foreigners everywhere they turn. However, peoples of African descent have a very long-standing history in Canada, with Africville being an important case in point.
Africville was one of Canada’s oldest African-Canadaian communities, located just outside Halifax, Nova Scotia, until it was ordered destroyed in the 1960s.
To former African slaves in North America, Africville was a certain freedom - a means of escaping the social discrimination and racism of Canadian and American society. However, as much as the tenants could escape these negative aspects of Canadian society, there was no escape from their economic situation in Canadian society.
The first set of settlers of Africville was a combination of the freed black slaves that pledged loyalty to the British crown. These slaves migrated all over Nova Scotia after the American Revolution. The initial number of settlers was around 3500. The former slaves were promised land by the ruling government, but what they were given was miserable agricultural land far from the communities of other settlers.
When the opportunity was provided for African settlers to migrate to Sierra Leone in 1791 by the Canadian government, it was quickly seized on by some 2000 of the settlers. Poor working conditions, poor agricultural lands, and the social and economical injustice that these black settlers faced in Canada made the choice to move an easy one. The government’s next strategy was to import 550 maroon refugees from Jamaica that rebelled against slavery. The maroons eventually resisted from working because of the infertile land they were given. The province then aggressively shipped the maroons to Sierra Leone in 1800.
The past lands of the maroons and former loyalist slaves were then given to black war veteran and refugees in the 1812 war against the United States. The main reason the government gave the land to those veterans was to replace the labour it lost with the last two sets of refugees. This new set of refugees and their descendants established what has come to be known as Africville. The refugees obtained land from the coastal areas of the Bedford Basin from former slave owners in the 1840s.
Africville slowly began to be torn apart as the city of Halifax grew in the nineteenth century. In 1853, train tracks were laid down right through the community, resulting in many families losing their lands and livelihood. A prison was established on the hills overlooking the community. The prison’s dump was accumulated on the eastern point of the freed refugee’s community that also added to harsh conditions of the land.
In 1954, a city manager presented to Halifax city council a proposal for the residents of Africville to be moved to other lands owned by the government. The proposal stated, “The area is not suited for residents but, properly developed, is ideal for industrial purposes. There is water frontage for piers, the railway for siding, a road to be developed leading directly downtown and in the other direction to the provincial highway.”
The residents were never informed of the original plans of relocation and favour drew closer to the city’s reasons for the bulldozing of the community. One tenant stated, “Those who refused or were slow to leave often found themselves scrambling out of the back door with their belongings as the bulldozers were coming in the front.” Most people were given just under $500 for compensation. The last building was bulldozed in 1970.
Today, the historical site where Africville once stood has been turned to a dog park with a sundial commemorating the community.
Africans have inhabited this country for centuries. Yet people of African descent, with the exception of indigenous peoples, are still the most marginalized and exploited people in Canadian society. The destruction of Africville plays into the Canadian state’s attempt to wipe away the historical memory of African peoples in Canadian history, thus making it easier to continue the exploitation and marginalization of African peoples in the present.
With no historical understanding of ourselves - and this goes for all oppressed people - there’s no way to understand how we got to where we are today, and no way to understand where we are going tomorrow.