By Gregory Betts
Niagara has a long and sublimated history of racism. Why is that remotely problematic? There was slavery here. Up until very recently, there was cultural genocide happening here. I have yet to hear any discussion of the legacy of Niagara slave owners. The longer we pretend racism is somebody else’s problem, America’s problem, the less sense our own world will make to us. Especially as many amongst us start to think about and confront the implications of that legacy of dishonor.
It is encouraging to note that the region, led by a network of local historians and activists, is starting to think about and honour its racial history. A new bust of Harriett Tubman, one of the great engineer’s of the Underground Railroad, saviour of thousands, was unveiled at the Salem Chapel BME Church in St. Catharines. Nearby, a new school in her honour just opened in the downtown. A statue of her is travelling across the world to be installed at the school (really – there were no local artists?). A placard was raised to honour Richard Pierpoint, leader of an all-black militia in the war of 1812. Other markers of that history exist around the region.
But as we start to celebrate a select few triumphant figures, we risk occluding our failures and the suffering they caused. We risk misunderstanding our triumphs with too much self-flattery. On July 9, 1793, 72 years before America (and 40 years before the British Empire) Lord John Graves Simcoe effectively ended slavery when the first act of the first parliament in Upper Canada (aka Ontario) passed. The Act Against Slavery (An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province) had been directly inspired by witness testimony of the horrible treatment of slaves in Canada. Of course, most Canadians don’t know that there were slaves here at all.
In fact, many of the elected officials who passed the act owned slaves themselves. Simcoe had to compromise with those elected Canadian slave owners by grandfathering the end of slavery, extending it for another generation. Owners could even put their slaves’ children “to work” under the act until they turned 25, with no education or recompense for their broken lives. Who were those shattered children and what became of them? What chance did they have?
We have a habit in this country of using America’s problems to avoid addressing our own. Simcoe initiated the end of slavery, but still kids were born and kept in chains. Runaway slaves were arrested by the Canadian government and returned to living hell. Racial violence and conflict was normal.
People fought back. One of the most amazing stories of radical Canadian civil disobedience involves the runaway slave Solomon Moseby, who was arrested in 1837 in Niagara-on-the-Lake and sentenced to be returned to his American owners. The townsfolk, white but primarily black, were outraged, and surrounded the jail in protest without weapons. After two weeks, a melee broke out in which two black protesters were shot dead by Canadian soldiers, but Moseby managed to escape his Canadian captors. When we talk about Canadian multicultural society, we would do well to remember that people fought hard against racial oppression against other Canadians who fought hard for it.
Last year, first-nations elder Lee Maracle addressed the annual Two Days of Canada conference, and responded to the incident of black-face at Brock University—where a student won a prize for a racist costume. Her message to the conference was that white Canadians need to remember our own past. Not just the violence that white settlers in Canada have doled out, but the violence that very often brought them those settlers here in the first place, and that was internalized and projected onto folks lower on the social hierarchy.
If the violence is going to end, if the scars are ever to heal, the full story needs to be told and acknowledged. She was not calling for a post-racial world, but a post-racist one. You don’t have to listen to hard to realize that aboriginal experience in the region is not free of this racism, nor is general Canadian experience.
This year at the 29th Two Days of Canada conference, we are heeding her advice by opening up a discussion of Black history and experience in Niagara, Ontario, and Canada. It is an array of stories of sadness and triumph, of hard-fought victories and utter displacement, of progressive stands taken by local leaders and governments and cowardly betrayals. We believe Canadians, Niagarans, are ready if not hungry for such a frank discussion.
Two Days of Canada is an annual conference hosted by Brock University. This year’s conference called “Harriet’s Legacies” will include public lectures by leading scholars, roundtable discussions with local activists and historians, performances by musicians and poets including two-time Juno Award winner Lillian Allen, and a fiction reading by the great Caribbean Canadian novelist Austin Clarke on October 22-23, 2015. Tickets can be bought here.