Nova Scotia's slave history is marked by brutality, but it has been largely erased: scholar

·5 min read
The African Nova Scotian flag flies over the Macdonald Bridge in Halifax ahead of the province's first official Emancipation Day on Aug. 1.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
The African Nova Scotian flag flies over the Macdonald Bridge in Halifax ahead of the province's first official Emancipation Day on Aug. 1. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

This year, as Nova Scotians officially observe Emancipation Day for the first time, there are calls to not only recognize this province's brutal history of slavery — but to make reparations for it.

"You can't talk about emancipation without talking about reparations," community leader and activist Lynn Jones told CBC Radio's Mainstreet during a special hour-long program for Emancipation Day that aired Friday.

Aug. 1 marks the day — 187 years ago — when the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, freeing about 800,000 enslaved people in most British colonies.

Jones said Emancipation Day is about taking action to address the legacy of slavery and the anti-Black racism that persists today.

"We aren't truly liberated," she said. "Canada has never offered an apology, nor have they sat at the table to talk about reparations."

Kyah Sparks/CBC
Kyah Sparks/CBC

Governor Edward Cornwallis is known to have arrived in Halifax in 1749 with about 400 enslaved people, according to the Nova Scotia Archives.

There were less than 3,000 people in the city around that time, meaning enslaved people made up 18 per cent of the population. In contrast, there were just 17 free Black people.

In places like Nova Scotia and Quebec, slave owners largely lived in urban areas, with enslaved people forced to do both domestic and agricultural labour, said Charmaine Nelson, the founding director of the new Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Nova Scotia Archives
Nova Scotia Archives

Slavery looked different here than it did on plantations in the U.S. south, but it was no less brutal, she said.

Nova Scotia Archives
Nova Scotia Archives

"We have to think about the types of psychological surveillance and control and terror, quite frankly, to which enslaved people in Canada were subjected," she said.

Nelson, a professor of art history, has studied transatlantic slavery through the ads used to sell, auction and recapture enslaved people.

Sometimes they include very personal details that can help create an "unauthorized visual portrait" of someone who lived more than a hundred years ago. Through these ads Nelson has learned how enslaved people resisted slavery by holding on to their cultural practices, and how they risked their lives to reunite with their loved ones.

"We're in a sad situation where most of us don't even know that slavery transpired in Canada ... and how could we? Because it's nowhere in the curriculum from kindergarten to where I teach in university," Nelson said.

What happened after abolition?

Even though the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on Aug. 1, 1834, it didn't mean people were suddenly free. The act only freed children under the age of six, and everyone else was forced to work as apprentices without pay for several years.

The push for abolition also didn't come from people within what would become Canada, Nelson said. Many of them "were quite angry and horrified at the loss of their so-called property in that moment."

In fact, several years before abolition, a group of 27 people from Digby County, including several prominent Acadians, petitioned the British government to strengthen their right to own slaves.

Listen to CBC Radio Mainstreet's hour-long special for Emancipation Day:

The British government also compensated some slave owners after slavery was outlawed, Nelson said.

"You were able to count up how many enslaved people you were going to lose and then file a formal document with the British government saying compensate me for these people, so that today would be billions of dollars and enslaved people got nothing," Nelson said.

Meghan Tansey Whitton
Meghan Tansey Whitton

For author Sharon Robart-Johnson, finally marking Emancipation Day nationwide feels like too little, too late.

"That anger will be there for a long time, I guess, because racism is still quite strong in Nova Scotia, it's just more subtle," said Robart-Johnson, a descendant of Black Loyalists from Yarmouth County.

Many years ago, she came across a 220-year-old court record about a young enslaved woman named Jude who was beaten to death by her owner's sons for taking food from the pantry. The men responsible were charged for murder, but acquitted.

"I was extremely surprised and then I was angry and then I was outraged," said Robart-Johnson, who has written about Jude's life and death, including in her new book of historical fiction, Jude and Diana.

Dalhousie News
Dalhousie News

Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard, who spent many years pushing to make Emancipation Day a reality in Canada, doesn't want Nova Scotians to turn away from the brutal way enslaved people, like Jude, were treated.

"We don't own the shame of the past, but we have to own the present and the future," she said.

"The erasure of our full history, the denial of that full history causes tremendous pain, trauma and in essence, a sense of not belonging, not truly belonging to this country."

The denial of that full history causes tremendous pain ... - Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard

She sees Aug. 1 as an opportunity to start the next chapter in the Black Lives Matter movement, which galvanized people across the globe to stand up to anti-Black racism.

"Guilt and shame can really immobilize you, but if we could take those feelings and turn them into actions, you know, I think that's one of the most important things that we can do," she said.

FreeUp! Emancipation Day 2021 is a youth-led celebration of spoken word, dance, theatre and music, as we gather together to celebrate freedom. Join CBC Arts on Aug. 1 at 1 p.m. ET on CBC Gem and YouTube.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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CBC

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