Africville Settlement: Is this Democracy or a Miscarriage of Justice?

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[Editor’s note: This opinion piece was submitted by Denise Allen, who has filed for a court injunction to stop the proposed Africville settlement. For more on the injunction, see here.]

Let us be clear, was the “Africville deal” which was orchestrated by government, and merrily agreed to by the Africville Genealogy Society, decided in the name of Africville elders? Consider the following quote by Dr. Ruth Johnson:

“To think that they (Government) hated us so much that they destroyed our community so dogs could run free. And today, if you think I should welcome and be grateful for Africville being designated a historical sight, you’re wrong.”

In protest against City Ordinance 188, which declared the former Africville lands a dog park and prohibited the Africville protest, Irene Izzard-Mantley’s responded resolutely:

“Without mercy the government bulldozed our homes in our absence without our permission, and without compassion. They left our grandmothers without shelter at a time when they were most vulnerable and alone---my grandmother was 87 years old when the city bulldozed her home and destroyed all of her belongs. She was left with just one change of clothes amidst the rubble and ruin. Before she died, she made me vow to make the guilty pay. This is the horror I carry to this day.”

These two quotes speak profoundly to the direction the Africville people should take. In my opinion, the “deal” between the Africville Genealogy Society and government does not reflect the will of these strong and outspoken Africville matriarchs. Both quotes were captured by the media---one on the podium the day that Africville was declared a historical site, the other in protest against City Ordinance 188 at Grand Parade Square.

Moreover, they were law abiding citizens, both having said “a liar and a thief go together like a hand in glove. Never trust a liar or a thief, neither of whom follows the rules.”

In a democracy, due process, human rights based on equality, fairness and the rule of law should prevail, and no one is exempt or above reproach. The checks and balances play out through due diligence, transparency and accountability. However, when these mechanisms fail, lawyers appear to be our only option. In the case of the Africville “deal,” legal correspondence questioning the legitimacy of the Africville Genealogy’s authority to represent the Africville people in any capacity fell on the deaf ears of HRM councillors and the mayor. That the elected officials ignored the legalities of the concerns raised and rushed through the “deal” suggests that the people of Africville are, once again, being duped out of justice. Moreover, when representatives of organizations and/or elected officials are permitted to compromise the rules, ignore or manipulate governing regulations, it clearly sends the disturbing message that black people still don’t matter.

Africville was a vibrant community until all levels of government decided to invade the community with hazardous industries---three dumps, four sets of railway tracks, a coal factory, a tannery, nail factory, infectious disease hospital, Rockhead Prison, bone meal factory, fertilizer plant, etc. What they did to Africville is the most blatant and extreme illustration of environmental racism I’ve ever encountered. The purpose was to chase the people of Africville out by hook and by crook in order to control access to their valuable land.

The people of Africville were denied any consultations on any of the hazardous industries that no other community would accept in their backyards. It was treated as if the land of Africville was empty of people. Their health and safety was reduced to nothing.

We were not even considered good enough to have access to the jobs derived from those unhealthy industries.

All this occurred in spite of the fact that the people of Africville bought their property and were taxed in the same way as other Halifax residents. They were systematically denied services, including public schooling, water, sewage, firefighting, paved roads, sidewalks, recreational facilities, policing, waste removal and electricity---all services that the rest of Halifax enjoyed.

In 1912, Halifax’s attitude towards Africville was to ignore it. As a matter of fact, it was stated by government that Africville would be abandoned as a residential area, despite numerous petitions by the people of Africville for inclusion. In 1917, Africville felt the full brunt of the Halifax explosion and didn’t receive any of the medical aid or relief funds that were raised for the restoration of Halifax, even in spite of the fact there was $500,000 left over. The people of Africville had to rebuild their community, in addition to taking care of their injured and burying their dead. They did this without any outside aid.

Systemic discrimination in education and employment opportunities forced the outmigration of adults and youth, making the community more vulnerable, and it was at this point of vulnerability that the dump trucks and bulldozers came to forcibly destroy homes and ultimately the entire community.

To say that Africville reminds us of a stark example of how racism permeates Canadian society is an understatement. The people of Africville have been victimized by anti- black racism. Differential treatment based upon the colour of one’s skin is immoral and a heinous human rights crime, but it is the story of what happened to the people of Africville. It is no wonder that the UN concluded in 2004 that the people of Africville deserved reparations for all their suffering and how they were robbed.

But instead, the tragic story continues to the present. Today, Africville residents are far more likely to be tenants than homeowners. Meanwhile, the children of Africville’s descendants are forced to endure a racist educational system that limits them, criminalizes them, brands them slow learners and prevents them from improving their situation.

The compensation settlement does not come close to making up for what was stolen from the people of Africville. As a matter of fact, the issue of Africville doesn’t compare to the recreation needs of the residents of Clayton Park who will receive a $10 million soccer field, the cost of which is $7 million more that the cost of the token gestures offered to the people of Africville. Hardly the “reparations” that the UN intended for Africville people. Racial injustice is repeating. In 1967, the people of Africville were excluded from the discussions about the future of their community. Just as it happened then, presently, the government is once again forcing its will through the Africville Genealogy Society in a patronizing way, having dictated the terms to them, hardly what you would call good faith negotiations. The Africville Genealogy Society, which the city of Halifax knew had been operating outside the Society’s Act, was nonetheless the only organization or group of citizens consulted. Just as in 1967, the vast majority of the people of Africville had no knowledge and did not approve of the racist arrangements, and some of those who agreed to the actions, now as then, did not actually understand what they were agreeing to.

The people of Africville were not part of the discussions, and were kept uninformed as the terms of the “deal” were set in the darkest corners of government back rooms.

To add insult to injury, the “deal” states that Seaview Dog Park will be renamed Africville Park. Ironically, when we had our own community, we dare not have pets outside of our home because the Halifax police used the pets as target practice.

It may be better than nothing, but the people responsible for the issue of Africville are once again getting away unscathed, burying and escaping culpability. In contrast, the struggle for reparations for the people of Africville has been sold for a dirty, dried up “dog bone deal” and tourism Dog Park.

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