Tuesday, 3 October 2017

MONUMENTS IN THEIR HONOUR: MEMORY AND LANDS OF OPPORTUNITY IN NOVA SCOTIA

AFRICAN CANADIAN HISTORY

BY: KENDRA CAMPBELL

“History is not the past, it is the present” - James Baldwin 

Last week’s exciting announcement from the Nova Scotia government served as a poignant reminder that the events of the present cannot be understood without a clear sense of the past. The province announced that it will spend $2.7 million dollars to help residents in historically Black communities obtain legal title to their land. The CBC summarizes the announcement and the issue here.
“The problem can be traced back two centuries, when the government gave plots of land to Black loyalists for their support during the American Revolutionary War and to Black refugees, former slaves who sought refuge after the War of 1812. The government, however, did not give deeds, which meant those who settled never officially owned the land they lived on” – Sherri Borden Colley, CBC News 
House at North Preston, Nova Scotia, 1934. Source.

I’m struck by the intergenerational nature of this issue. The actions, or inaction of some groups 200 years ago, have direct bearing on the lives of these residents. For many, the geography of these historically Black communities are not passive sites of memory, but rather actives sites of visceral meaning-making where the past and present tensions may reconcile.

Land Titles were among several action items noted in a recent United Nations Working Group report that addresses racial disparities and discrimination against people of African descent in Canada. One recommendation stands out to me: the report lists that the Government of Canada should
"take concrete steps to preserve the history of enslavement and the political, social and economic contributions of African Canadians by establishing monuments in their honour." 
Inside the new Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown, Nova Scotia. Source.

Monuments function as sites of memory, as they are sites of power. This perspective was validated by the significant protests that erupted this summer. With respect to Nova Scotia, building new monuments could be part of a fundamental exercise in space reclamation. I’m excited at the prospect of a necessary intervention into Nova Scotia’s narrative. At a time when we are looking at monuments with greater scrutiny, it is critical that we question who controls the story and for what purpose. It is my hope that Nova Scotia’s example permeates into broader national narratives and encourages stories where multiple and at times conflicting voices can be heard and respected.

Museums should be at the forefront of this memory work. For many institutions, this is a land of new opportunity. Intimidating perhaps, but necessary in the current sociopolitical climate.

African Canadian history reveals much about our present reality. I look forward to exploring this juncture of past and present over the next several months. A gentle reminder that you need not wait until February to dig into these issues; here’s a sample of what’s coming up in Black History in the GTA.

BAND Gallery and Cultural Centre
Emerging Artists Showcase Featuring Gordon Shadrach
September 21-October 22, 2017  

Lucie and Thornton Blackburn Conference Centre
A Freedom-Seeker’s Toronto: Celebrating the Life and Times of Cecilia Jane Reynolds
October 18-19, 2017 (Details to Follow)

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