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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s time to make reparations for the transatlantic slave trade

The legacy of slavery is alive in Canada, and reparations could begin the process of righting historical injustices

Today, there is an international conversation in former slave-trading nations about the intergenerational economic, social and cultural effects of the transatlantic slave trade.

This conversation includes colonial governments, descendants of slave owners, universities, newspapers, municipalities, professional organizations, community activists and religious institutions.

There are now calls for reparations to the descendants of enslaved peoples.

In 2021, the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) and the Nova Scotia Association of Black Social Workers (ABSW) began a project to examine CASW’s and social work’s relationship (or lack thereof) with Black Canadians. Both associations recognized “the systemic racism in our country and the need for our joint forces to rectify the wrong and strengthen the lives of people of African descent.”

It resulted in a 50-page report that provides recommendations for reparations. Here’s why.

In Canada, from the 17th to the mid-19th century, African slaves and slave trading were common with British and French settlers. When New France became part of the British domain in 1759, 1,509 slave owners and 1,132 slaves of African descent were documented.

During the U.S. War of Independence (1775-83), United Empire Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where most settlements had African slaves. During this era, most prominent political and religious figures in Ontario were slave owners (Winks, 1997). The British government outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1833, but many slaves continued to serve as indentured servants to their former slave masters for the remainder of their lives.

Migration of African-descent peoples to Canada continued from the mid-19th century onward. Migrants from the United States settled in Windsor, Chatham, Buxton and Toronto, Ontario (Hill, 1981).

Montreal became a temporary home to many African-descent peoples in the 1880s while working as porters on Canada’s two transcontinental railways. In the early 20th century, some decided to make Montreal their home, creating the city’s English Black community (Este, 2004).

In Western Canada, African Americans migrated to the Victoria area in the 1860s and to northern Alberta and Saskatchewan in the early 20th century.

Starting in the 1960s, extensive Caribbean migration began, primarily from Jamaica and Haiti to Toronto and Montreal. In the 21st century, these countries continued to be a major source of immigrants, along with Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As of the 2021 census, Black people comprise 4.3 per cent of Canada’s population. Most are descendants of former slaves from the Americas.

Professional social work began in Canada in 1914, but it was only in the late 1950s that persons of African descent began to enter the profession through university degree programs.

We reviewed the websites and annual reports of the CASW, ABSW, Canadian provincial associations, and those of the British and American associations. We found that social work websites contained little or no information about African Canadians.

The CASW hadn’t commented on the major events of the 20th century regarding peoples of African descent, such as the demolition of Africville, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the formation of the Black United Front, and the imprisonment/release of Nelson Mandela.

Introductory social work and social policy texts had little to no content on African-descent peoples until 2017.

Anti-racism, anti-Black racism and Africentric social work webinars, presentations and workshops only became visible in the Canadian social work profession after 2018. The murder of George Floyd in the United States is believed to be a major catalyst.

The transatlantic slave trade involved an estimated 12 million people (Jones, McElderry, Connor, 2021), with an estimated $3 billion value assigned to the bodies and labour of enslaved Black Americans’ free labour and production at the start of the U.S. Civil War.

Today, white families in the U.S. have a median financial wealth of $171,000 compared to $17,600 for Black families. White college graduates have seven times the wealth of Black college graduates (Ray & Perry, 2020).

To date, Black Americans have not been compensated for their enslavement. They have been denied education and housing opportunities. The moral wrong of slavery, its lost economic opportunities and its multi-generational harms are three major reasons to seek reparations today.

Several organizations investigating their connections to the slave trade have begun to voluntarily make reparations. Georgetown University and Princeton Theological Seminary built endowments and became elite institutions through the sale of slaves. These universities are now entitling the descendants of slaves sold by them “to full rights and benefits bestowed by those universities to obtain degrees across the higher education pipeline” (Ray & Perry, 2020).

On March 23, 2021, Evanston, Illinois became the first municipality in the United States to pay reparations to Black families or their descendants who have been a victim of discrimination in housing policies and practices between 1919 and 1969. Council voted to distribute $25,000 to each of 16 eligible Black households for home repairs or down payments, as well as a total of $10 million over the next 10 years (BBC News, March 23, 2021).

The State of California; Iowa City, Iowa; Amherst, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and Asheville, North Carolina are also considering reparations.

On April 21, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to approve a legislative proposal that would create a commission to “examine slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present.” Its name, HR 40, refers to the 40 acres of land and a mule that President Abraham Lincoln promised African Americans as reparations for slavery at the end of the United States Civil War (1861-65). These reparations were never received and this proposal is unlikely to pass due to a divided Congress.

When they hear the term reparations, most Canadians believe that African Canadians are seeking fiscal compensation for enslaved descendants. While African Canadians did experience over 200 years of enslavement, they continue to experience racism and discrimination. Reparations need to be understood as the act of “repairing or restoring” and an acknowledgment that the injury continues in the present (McKinley, 2020).

Reparations can take many forms: scholarships, tuition remission, business grants, housing down payments, land titles and political and academic representation.

Our report recommended that the CASW and its provincial associations continue to provide ongoing education opportunities on emerging issues impacting African Canadians, such as systemic anti-Black racism, reparations, and employment issues; Africentric social work practice; and the Canadian history of people of African descent.

It recommended creating two annual scholarships to African descent social work students and an annual award to an African Canadian social work practitioner to recognize outstanding contributions to the social work profession in Canada.

And it recommended creating an African-Canadian social work practitioner position at the CASW.

CASW’s decision to incorporate these recommendations into their strategic plan is positive recognition of slavery’s legacy and its multi-generational harms and the need for reparations. As the first national professional organization to do so, it provides a path forward for other professions, trade unions and civil society organizations to recognize slavery’s harms and address them within their organization today.

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