Emancipation Day Bill

Second Reading—Debate Continued

February 28, 2019


The Honourable Senator Colin Deacon :

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak at second reading of Bill S-255, the Emancipation Day Act.

I hadn’t intended to speak about this legislation, in part because I felt our colleague and the sponsor of this bill, Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, is such an outstanding voice on issues affecting African Canadians. Additionally, the broader human rights work she has done and continues to do is intimidatingly impressive. With a voice like that in this debate, what could I possibly add?

Of course, that is exactly the point.

Part of this bill’s preamble notes that:

. . . it is appropriate to recognize August 1 formally as Emancipation Day and to observe it as a poignant reminder of an abhorrent period in Canada’s history in order to allow Canadians to reflect upon the imperative to continue to commit to eliminating discrimination in all its forms . . .

It is equally important for those of us who have not and do not personally experience the effects of racism in their daily lives to reflect on these issues.

Senator Bernard was recently featured in a video on the Senate website. She was in conversation with one of our pages, O’Neal Ishimwe, discussing issues of race and identity in honour of African Heritage Month.

It’s a powerful video and I encourage all honourable senators to watch it. I must admit that it forced me to acknowledge my own privilege and, quite frankly, my own ignorance.

O’Neal spoke candidly and matter-of-factly about his reality: that as a young Black man he is always thinking about his race, about where he is walking, how he is walking and how he is dressed. Real life realities require him to always be thinking about these things in Canada, in Ottawa, in this day and age. It was a stark reminder that I do not, and have not, had those thoughts. I was grateful to see how O’Neal described an important reality of his daily life in a way that so jarringly contrasted with my own reality.

During this video, Senator Bernard and O’Neal discuss the importance of recognizing African Heritage Month specifically, and the difference between African Heritage Month and Black History Month. Yes, it is important to celebrate Black History. However, in Nova Scotia we recognize African Heritage in order to connect the realities faced by Black Canadians today to their ancestors’ enslavement, emancipation and survival. Honouring history helps us to build a more inclusive future.

Senator Mégie was also featured in a similar video with another of our wonderful pages, Priscilia Odia Kabengele. Their conversation was inspirational on every level and gave me hope that, when and where open minds exist, great opportunity flows for all Canadians.

Canadians like myself will also benefit from commemorating this historic day as it encourages us all to reflect on the imperative to commit to eliminating discrimination in all its forms. Those of us who do not face racial discrimination on a daily basis are not only privileged, but are the ones who must help spur change.

While I believe it is important for allies to spend more time listening than speaking, I also feel compelled to stand up and advocate for change. I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on our shared history and how far we still have to go.

As Canadians, I think we like to believe that we are good people. I like to believe that we are good people. We can be kind and compassionate and we are certainly full of a lot of “pleases,” “thank yous” and “I’m sorrys.” We must also acknowledge that, while this bill commemorates the abolition of slavery, we as Canadians are certainly not yet in a position to celebrate the abolition of racism in our country.

I grew up learning, with pride, that Black Loyalists fleeing the United States for Canada were given land so that they could escape to safety and build a life and that Canada was the safe destination at the end of the Underground Railroad. I was taught these heartwarming headlines. I slowly — much too slowly — came to learn that the details are not nearly so comforting.

In her sponsor’s speech, Senator Bernard reminded us all of Africville, a Black community in Halifax’s North End, established in 1749, the same time as our city. Starting in 1964, its residents were forcibly removed, suffering the trauma of seeing their homes bulldozed and their community demolished.

I say “reminded,” but I know there are many Canadians, particularly those outside of Nova Scotia, who may not have heard of Africville, nor learned of it in school. I was one of those Canadians, growing up in rural Ontario. This, too, is an example of the persistent racism that can be found in Canada: Whose stories are being told? Whose voices are we hearing? How can we do better? Bill S-255 provides an opportunity to address these important questions on an ongoing basis.

About nine years ago, the Mayor of Halifax finally offered a formal apology to the former residents of Africville and their descendants, noting that:

The repercussions of what happened to Africville linger to this day.

It is equally important to note that it is not just the repercussions which linger, but to understand that the root causes, including institutionalized and environmental racism, are still far too prevalent.

Africville may be one of the most visceral examples of the displacement of Black communities, but it is by no means the exception.

I was surprised when, in 2015, students at the Nova Scotia Community College launched an investigation into land titles in North Preston, a community of predominantly African-Nova Scotian residents near Halifax. I was surprised because what these students discovered, with shocking details, was that many families, who have lived on their land for centuries, don’t have a legal title and therefore are paying taxes on land that they cannot legally sell, they cannot mortgage and cannot will to their descendants.

Through the efforts of these students, national and even international attention was generated and it spurred the Government of Nova Scotia to help fund an initiative to assist these residents to get clear title to the land on which they live and on which their ancestors lived before them.

Honourable senators, that work is still ongoing. It remains a slow and frustrating process and should not be a situation that Canadians have to deal with in 2019.

These are not the only types of land issues that are happening in Black communities in Nova Scotia. As with many other places, gentrification is playing a role in the displacement, yet again, of African-Nova Scotians from their communities.

North End Halifax is one example, where changing demographics have resulted in marginalization, with the existing residents feeling pushed out of their own community.

Of course, simply having land rights or a community does not insulate one from other forms of racism.

Birchtown, a community on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, is where many Black Loyalists settled after the American Revolution. This area is the genesis of Black history in Nova Scotia and I understand that Senator Bernard’s family heritage in East Preston also reaches back to those earliest days of our province’s history.

In her speech on Bill S-255, Senator Coyle made reference to Birchtown being the largest settlement of free Blacks in North America, named after Brigadier General Samuel Birch, who was responsible for the creation of the Book of Negroes. As Senator Coyle told us:

. . . the good land went to the White Loyalists and the Black Loyalists were not given what had been promised to them.

Many left and resettled in Sierra Leone but those who stayed built a community there, one that was rich with history. A complicated history, yes, but still part of our history.

And yet in 1963, when Birchtown residents sought historical designation for their community, they were denied. Denying history may bring comfort to some, but causes further pain to those whose legitimate place in that history is not being recognized.

In 1991 the Black Loyalist Heritage Society was incorporated. The same year saw an archaeological discovery of thousands of artifacts from the late 18th century. Finally, in 1996 the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board erected a plaque that recognized Birchtown as a “...proud symbol of the struggle by Blacks in the Maritimes and elsewhere for justice and dignity.”

Sadly, the struggle continues to this day. The Shelburne African Nova Scotia community is the site of a current research project into water-quality issues. Anecdotal evidence of the effect of the former Shelburne dump on the community is disconcerting. Louise Delisle, one of the members involved in the South End Environmental Injustice Society, doesn’t mince words when she says:

The majority of the Black men in the community have died of cancer. There’s a community of widows in Shelburne. That’s what it is.

I’m glad that work is now being done to investigate the effects of that dump on the community. Ms. Delisle cited the dump in a compelling CBC story last spring as yet another example of environmental racism. The more we learn from our past, the better equipped we are to proactively avoid these mistakes, rather than reactively deal with their fallout.

I’m grateful to my colleague Senator Bernard and hope to continue to benefit from her guidance in how I can contribute to the fight for justice which should not be an issue in a country that prides itself in being committed to the rule of law, respectful for all and to fulfilling the promise of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms adopted almost 37 years ago.

Honourable senators, today we’re still in Nova Scotia African Heritage Month — in the last minutes of it. The theme for this year is, “Our history is your history.” I can think of no better phrase to articulate why it is so important for us to recognize Emancipation Day and the extensive work that remains in order that we fulfill the promise of that Act, 185 years hence.

I was inspired to learn that we may be making progress when it comes to what our kids are learning. Recently, a group of junior high school students in Cole Harbour had the opportunity to learn more about the racism and injustice that some are experiencing. That is something I could have benefitted from 45 years ago when I was in junior high school. A Grade 9 student ably summed up the importance of expanding how we teach. She said:

When I asked my social studies teacher about the things we are learning, she said that it’s important to teach history so that history doesn’t repeat itself. But they never teach you about black history so I think if they did, there wouldn’t be as many racial issues.

Bill S-255 seeks to address this very point. Let’s ensure that we recognize our shared past so we can build a more inclusive future.

While I focused my remarks today on my own province of Nova Scotia, these issues are relevant to all of our provinces and territories. Honouring Emancipation Day nationally will not just be a day for African-Canadians; it’s a day for all of us.

I identify my own reflection in watching Senator Bernard’s interview with O’Neal as evidence of our collective job and how it is far from being done.

The Senate has a role in protecting marginalized groups and giving them a voice in Parliament. This is literally our job. This being Black History Month, I can think of no better celebration than for this Chamber to send this bill to committee and accept our collective responsibility and history. Thank you very much.