The Ethnic Cleansing of Africville

Identity Politics in Canada

If nothing else, Africville stands as an undeniable symbol of the sickening ignorance and self-satisfying nature of an industrial capitalist society.

— Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group

In fact, the displacement of the residents of Africville and the mass destruction of their potential as well as their ability to develop as a community is organically tied to one historical continuum called racism.

— Denise Allen

There is literally no community in Canada, perhaps none in North America, quite like Africville. Its long history, its special population and their employment characteristics, the years of neglect of this community by the administration of the city of Halifax, the unique importance of this settlement for all the people of Nova Scotia and for Canada must be borne in mind by negotiators.

— City of Halifax’s report on the relocation project of Africville, 23 July 1962

In the east coast Canadian city of Halifax, there existed a community of Afro-Canadians that once numbered almost 400 citizens. Situated in the north of the city on the shoreline of Bedford Basin, Africville was first settled in the 1700s and as a result of “environmental racism” developed into a shantytown. Human rights activist Denise Allen outlined how Africville came to be surrounded by, among other industries, “three systems of railway tracks; an open city dump; disposal pits for Halifax toxic waste; a hospital for infectious diseases; a stone and coal crushing plant; a toxic waste dump; a bone-meal plant; a cotton factory; a rolling mill/nail factory; a slaughterhouse; sewage disposal units; a prison; and a port facility for handling coal.”1

Halifax effectively abandoned Africville. It received no public services although residents were under the same tax scheme as other Haligonians; Africville was without water, sewer, electricity, and paved streets (there was only one dirt road). “Petitions for public education, water, recreational and play ground facilities, ambulance services firefighters, paved roads, social assistance, garbage pick-up and removal, and even a cemetery were all denied,” stated Allen. “We got taxation but no representation.”

Few families held legally verifiable title to the land; but it is important to emphasize that the municipality collected taxes from all Africville residents. Despite the “slum” characterization of Africville in the corporate media, it was described as a “tight community of law-abiding, tax paying, Baptist citizens who did their best to survive in the conditions they were forced to live in by the Canadian government.”2 Donald Clairmont remarked, “Africville was always a viable community with fine houses, plenty of space, small-scale entrepreneurs and a strong community spirit.”3 One former resident beheld Africville thus: “It was lovely, lovely. They talk about Peggy’s Cove [a tourist site famed for its natural scenery] but I am going to tell you, it was the most beautiful sight you would want to see.”4

The municipal heads had plans for the expropriation of Africville though. In the mid 1960s under the guise of an urban renewal program the city of Halifax carried out a communal ethnic cleansing. Most Africville residents received an average payout of C$500 — “hardly an amount sufficient for resettlement in metropolitan Halifax, in which the cost of living ranks among the highest in Canada” — and those who were fortunate had their belongings transferred in garbage trucks before the community was bulldozed in the middle of the night.

A sundial commemorates where the ethnically-cleansed community of Africville once stood. Photo by Mike Campbell

Pamela Brown questioned the official portrayal of the forcible “urban removal” project in Africville: “Private communication with city officials and relocation officials in the United States and other parts of Canada brought praise to the Africville relocation. It is important to note by whom the relocation was considered a success.”5

Allen identified the force behind Brown’s Orwellian phraseology of “urban removal” as “an unholy alliance by Government and the businesses it serves, to deliberately slaughter our community to death.” Allen elaborated, “The destruction of Africville was part of an agenda that placed the accumulation of capital before people. The hopes and needs of Black citizens were apparently insignificant to government officials.”

But it was more insidious than simple greed. Allen draws attention to Clairmont’s telling comparison of how the Euro-Canadian community in South Halifax was treated in comparison to Africville’s residents. Euro-Canadians were allotted building permits, which Afro-Canadians could not as readily receive — explaining why many Africville residents were without deeds. Euro-Canadian communities in South Halifax were relocated in the same area and fairly compensated so that they could rebuild. Much of the hazardous industry in South Halifax was relocated near Africville. Allen asks, “Is something that is hazardous to White people not hazardous to Black people? Are we not human beings too?”6

Brown wrote, “Though the City of Nova Scotia claims that the relocation was for humanitarian reasons and as a part of a large urban renewal plan the city had proposed, records revealed the true purpose to the relocation of this black community.” Brown noted a 1945 Civic Planning Commission plan calling for the clearing of Africville had the “underlying intention” of “acquisition of land for industrial purposes.”6

In September 2001 Allen brought the issue of Africville before the UN at the Plenary Session of the World Conference Against Racism. She decried the “ethnic cleansing” by Canadian authorities and the UN was moved to investigate.

This month UN rapporteur Doudou Di’ne presented a draft report that recommends Canada pay reparations to former Africville residents and Chinese immigrants who used to have to pay a head tax in Canada.

Minister for Multiculturalism Jean Augustine did not raise hopes for the payment of reparations. “The government policy,” she stated, “remains no financial compensation.”

The UN draft report opens a can of worms on reparations for other wronged groups. The US adamantly refuses to consider payment of reparations for the abduction of Africans for slave labor. The US reveals a flagrant moral hypocrisy in having pressured German companies to compensate victims of slave labor and refusing to right its own equal crime. Meanwhile the US continues to abduct Black nationals of other countries.

The president of the Africville Genealogy Society Irvine Carvery believes that the Canadian government is morally bound to pay reparations to Africvillians: “For the minister to say this isn’t binding … legally it may not be, but it’s definitely morally binding.”

Regarding the Canadian government’s response, Allen states, “There is no surprise. That’s been their racist reaction to Afro-Canadians historically.”

“Canada is in violation of its UN signatories that protect the rights of its people,” says Allen. “But Canada has abandoned us.”6

Allen calls on all levels of government and industry involved in the ethnic cleansing to apologize and pay reparations to the victims of racism in Halifax. Allen lists exploitation as indentured or slave labor and the withholding of C$500,000 earmarked for damage repair to Africville following the tremendous Halifax Explosion of 1917 among the historical iniquities that Afro-Canadians in Halifax have suffered. Allen also calls for a solution to racism and hate in society.

In the summer of 2002 the federal government designated Africville a national historic site. Today a small part of Africville exists as an underused park in the shadow of a bridge connecting Halifax with Dartmouth. Other parts of Africville have been swallowed up by industry and on another part is the completed first phase of a high-end condominium construction. Allen notes a “huge slap in the face” to former Africville residents in naming this residential project ostensibly after the doomed explosives-laden French ship: Mont Blanc (White Mountain).

  1. Denise Allen, “Lessons from Africville,” Shunpiking, 6 September 2001. []
  2. Melanie Stuparyk, “Africville, the devastating story of a Black settlement in Halifax,” Imprint Online, 16 Febrauary 2001. []
  3. Quoted in Denise Allen, “Africville: The Case for Compensation: Exposing all aspects of racism in Nova Scotia, Canada,” Submission to The United Nations Special Rapporteur On Contemporary Forms of Racism In Canada, November 2003. []
  4. Donald Clairmont & Dennis Macgill, Africville Relocation Report, 2, (Institute of Public Affairs, Dalhousie University, 1971): 191. []
  5. Pamela Brown, “Africville: Urban Removal in Canada,” Hartford Web Publishing, 2 December 1996. []
  6. Personal communication. [] [] []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.