In 2017, a three-member United Nations expert panel recommended the Government of Canada “issue an apology and consider providing reparations to African Canadians for enslavement and historical injustices.”
The panel had spent the previous year discussing Canada’s history of racism. They filed their findings in a report to the UN Human Rights Council on people of African descent in Canada. The report discussed African Canadians and issues such as the criminal justice system, health, education and housing.
On June 2, reporters asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau whether he would act on the panel’s recommendation. He evaded the question.
Slavery in Canada
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. These people included government and military officials, Loyalists, bishops, priests and nuns and tradesmen such as hotel keepers.
Even so, some argue that Canada should not pay reparations to all African Canadians. They might argue that most African Canadians are not descended from people enslaved in Canada.
Some African Canadians descended from people who escaped slavery in the United States by coming to Canada. Many are, or are descended from, immigrants to Canada from the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere. And most of these Canadian residents 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 addressed in 2017.
Canada’s Prime Minister should apologize for both slavery and historic and contemporary injustices endured by African Canadians.
Financial reparations are more difficult than apologies. 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 the Second World War 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 comparatively 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.
But racial discrimination was not formally and uniformly prohibited 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 a financial payment to every individual African Canadian. But reparations for specific groups of victims of past and present harms are a viable option.
African Canadians and reparations
The 2017 U.N. 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 families and placed in Canadian foster care or adopted by white families.
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.
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.”
Racist housing laws
Even municipal leaders could apologize for the actions of their predecessors.
The neighbourhood of Westdale in Hamilton, Ont., 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 the Second World War.
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.
Today, African Canadians as a group may inherit less from their immediate ancestors than white 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 racist 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.
All levels of government as well as 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.