UN group to learn of Nova Scotia’s history of slavery during Halifax meeting

The international scientific committee of UNESCO’s Roots of Enslaved Peoples Project is holding its biennial meeting in Halifax from June 9 to 10. 

The newest member of the 20-member international committee is Afua Cooper, a history professor at Dalhousie University.

According to Cooper, the main purpose of the UNESCO body is to recognize the history of Black people with particular emphasis on slavery and the slave trade.

The last two countries to abolish slavery in the Americas were Brazil and Cuba in 1888, Cooper said, meaning that the experience of slavery lasted for some 400 years.

Cooper spoke with CBC Radio Information Morning host Portia Clark about how slavery has been “buried under the carpet” and of the importance of making it known all over the world. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Information Morning – NS8:24UN committee to hold meeting on legacy of slavery in Halifax

A United Nations committee on the legacy of slavery is holding an international meeting today in Halifax. Dalhousie professor Afua Cooper is attending as the Canadian representative.

[Will the committee] also look at the long-lasting impacts, that there is not a disconnect between issues of systemic racism and our enslaving past?

Absolutely. The legacies, the aftermath and even the futures are important, the futures of black people within the Americas and within the world as a whole.

Today we’re dealing with this disease of anti-black racism, which we can trace directly to the experience of enslavement of Africans within the Americas and, in fact, the world over.

If you look at the whole migrant crisis, people coming from across the Sahara, across the Mediterranean, into Europe, the way they are treated by the receiving countries. We look at the disease of anti-black racism throughout the world, then we can link these directly to slavery and to colonization flowing from slavery.

It’s to make known this history of slavery and also the impact of slavery in regards to racism, colonization, anti-black racism. 

Why is it fitting that the conference is being held in Halifax? Nova Scotia was not a slave colony per se.

The Enslaved Peoples Project has been held in different countries all over the world but never in Canada.

As early as 1700, we find the presence of black people enslaved by French. And then later on, British colonizers, black people were bought and sold within the boundaries of the borders of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Maritimes, Upper and Lower Canada, even in Newfoundland, which we typically do not associate with slavery. 

Slavery was the primary experience of black people within Nova Scotia for well over 200 years. So we cannot hide from that past when we also look at the entire colonial relationship between, say, a colony like Nova Scotia and the West Indies further south, where these two regions were linked by what we call the West India trade, which was an arm of the Atlantic slave trade.

Produce from the Maritimes, Canada, the dried fish, the salted beef and salted pork and so on, and timber, for example, were sent to the West Indies to feed the enslaved people there. And from the West Indies you had products like sugar molasses, that were grown by enslaved people, taken up the coast to places like Nova Scotia. 

Many Nova Scotian families made their fortune as a result of the West India trade.

The colony of Nova Scotia was implicated within the larger system of the Atlantic slave trade, more specifically the West India trade. 

Africville, located just north of Halifax, was an African-Canadian village demolished by the City of Halifax in the 1960s. The area will be part of the UNESCO tour this week. (CBC Archives)

Members of the committee are going to tour parts of Nova Scotia, at least close to Halifax. Can you quickly just tell us a few of the key spots? 

There’s going to be a community crawl, as it’s called, where members are going to tour sites of Black settlement and history around Halifax — Beechville, the Prestons, Africville and the Citadel Hill to look at the Marine bastion.

Many of these people are coming from different places in the world. The black history in Nova Scotia, which is a long history. It’s a deep history. It’s a rich history. And so that’s one of the exciting things about having the conference here, because we will be able to showcase that black history.

People will also be visiting the Black Cultural Centre over in Dartmouth. So it’s really a chance to show the world that Nova Scotia and Canada indeed, as a whole, were part of the Atlantic slave system, even though that story is not well known. 

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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