Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Reparations to African-Canadians

Reparations to African-Canadians

In 2017 a three-member Expert Panel filed a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on people of African descent in Canada.    This report discussed contemporary problems such as the criminal justice system, health, education, and housing as they affect African-Canadians. It also discussed Canada’s history of racism.

The panel’s first recommendation was that the Government of Canada should “issue an apology and consider providing reparations to African Canadians for enslavement and historical injustices.” On June 2, 2020 reporters asked Prime Minister JustinTrudeau whether he would act on this recommendation. He evaded the question.

Slavery was legal in Canada until 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in all its territories.  Canada did not have a slave-based plantation economy, but many people owned slaves, including government and military officials; Loyalists; bishops, priests and nuns; and tradesmen  such as hotel keepers.

Nevertheless, some might argue that Canada should not pay reparations to all African-Canadians. Most African-Canadians are not descended from people enslaved in Canada.  Some are descended from people who escaped slavery in the US by coming to Canada. Many are, or are descended from, immigrants to Canada from the Caribbean, Africa, and elsewhere. Most of these people arrived after 1962, when Canada removed its racist restrictions on immigration.

But even if they are not descended from people enslaved in Canada, most African-Canadians have suffered—and many still do suffer--from the “historical injustices” the Expert Panel mentions. Our Prime Minister could apologize both for slavery and for historic and contemporary injustices endured by African-Canadians.

Financial reparations are more difficult than apology. Many people think that financial reparation means giving every individual in a certain group a certain amount of money. Japanese-Canadians who were interned during World War II received an apology from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988, along with a payment of $21,000 to each living survivor.

The Japanese-Canadian redress was relatively easy to implement because the internment had been relatively recent, some victims were still alive, and the number was relatively small. By contrast, enslavement ended 186 years ago: no victims are still alive and many of the descendants of enslaved individuals might not be identifiable now.

On the other hand, racial discrimination was not formally prohibited uniformly in Canada until the Canadian Bill of Rights was proclaimed in 1960. .

Reparations for discrimination before and after 1960 need not take the form of financial payment to every individual African-Canadian. But reparations for specific groups of victims of past and present harms are a viable option.

For example, the Expert Panel notes the high rate at which children are removed from African-Canadian families. Reparations might be paid to members of this group, just as it’s been paid to Indigenous victims of the “sixties scoop,” when Indigenous children were removed from their original families and adopted by Euro-Canadians.

The federal and provincial governments could also establish funds for reparations to African-Canadian victims of ongoing maltreatment in prisons and jails. Recognition of the systemic nature of this maltreatment would mean that individuals would not have to prove their particular case for reparation in each instance.

And federal and provincial governments could establish funds for African-Canadian communities affected by environmental racism. The Expert Panel noted that “environmentally hazardous activities are disproportionately situated near neighbourhoods where many people of African descent live.”

Even municipal leaders could apologize for the actions of their predecessors.

The neighbourhood of Westdale in Hamilton, Ontario was built in the 1920s under a “protective covenant.” As historian John C. Weaver explains in his 1982 book, Hamilton: An Illustrated History, this covenant forbade sales to members of many different ethnic, religious and racial groups, among which “Negroes,” was the first group listed. The courts did not prohibit this segregation until after WWII. 
Discrimination in housing means that African-Canadians of the early 20th century had less opportunity to acquire wealth than white Canadians. This disparity in wealth may well carry down through generations. Contemporary African-Canadians as a group may well inherit less from their immediate ancestors than Euro-Canadians.

If the municipal government at the time permitted this institutionalized racism in Hamilton, then its Mayor could apologize for it now. So could any existing private organization such as banks, mortgage companies, or real estate agencies that were involved in upholding racially-biased protective covenants during the first half of last century. They might consider what reparations they could pay; for example, by donating to scholarship funds for local African-Canadian students.

Not only all levels of government, but also all public and private institutions should examine their consciences and their pasts. Faith communities, school boards, universities, health services, and private businesses may all be implicated in systemic racism against African-Canadians. All could consider formal apologies and collective financial reparations.

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