Irvine, the UN and the Hotliners

In March, 2004, a United Nations report urged Canada to pay compensation to the former residents of Afrciville. I wrote this column about the aftermath of that report…

Was he surprised by what he’d read, I ask?

Irvine Carvery doesn’t hesitate. “No. Not at all,” he tells me.

We are talking about a story that appeared in Wednesday’s Daily News. In light of a draft report released the week before — in which a United Nations special investigator on racism and discrimination had recommended Canada pay compensation to former Africville residents for bulldozing their community out of existence in the mid-sixties — the newspaper’s Hotline columnist asked readers whether Africville residents “are owed compensation.”

The results were clear from the headline: Africville Was Compensated, it declared flatly. But the headline was blandly benign when you rubbed it up against some of the more vitriolic quotable quotes from the 41 of 67 Hotline callers who argued former residents “shouldn’t get a dime more.”

“It was a place with no roads and hardly any indoor plumbing and was torn down and replaced with new homes for all,” according to “regular contributor” Don Stallard. “Would [Africville residents] want it restored to its original state instead?”

A female caller claimed the residents were “given nicer homes than the ones they had. ‘If they messed them up, that’s their fault, not the government’s,’” she said.

Added another woman caller: “It was a rat-infested place that had no sewer or water or anything.”

Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Genealogical Society, shrugs. “It’s obvious,” he says with surprising gentleness, “that the people who are doing all the talking are ignorant of the facts and the history, and never spent any time in Africville. The problem is that when it gets printed in the paper, other people think it must be true.”

Most of it isn’t true.

Or in context.

And some of it is a total crock.

Let’s start with the argument that Africville lacked city water and sewer services. That’s true. But whose fault was that?

Africville, a black community of about 400 on the edge of Bedford Basin, was a part of the City of Halifax from its beginnings in 1850. Its residents paid taxes. They petitioned City Council on various occasions to provide their community with the same services every other part of the city got: not just water and sewer but garbage pickup, snowplowing, road paving, building-code enforcement and police protection. The City refused. This response to a 1919 request from residents for better police protection was not untypical. The police department, it said, “had no spare men to send such a distance.”

When the Hotline caller dismissed Africville as a “rat-infested place,” she neglected to mention it was the City that located an open dump just 100 metres from Africville houses.  The dump was an acknowledged health menace that residents in other, more powerful (more white) parts of the city successfully lobbied to keep out of their own backyards.

That was just one of many health and safety menaces allowed — encouraged, in fact — to encroach on Africville: sewage disposal pits (which were relocated from the city’s south end), an infectious diseases hospital, a bone-meal plant, an abattoir.

As Donald Clairmont, a Dalhousie University sociologist who has studied the community, puts it: “There is no record of any concern for the health and safety of the Africville residents in relation to the hazards posed by these developments.”

When Africville residents were asked if they wanted to relocate in the early sixties, they said no. What they wanted was City sewer and water, repairs to their roads and help in fixing up their homes. The City claimed it couldn’t afford that, and then proceeded to spend more dismantling their community than it would have cost to provide services and improve the quality of Africville’s housing stock.

Far from “new homes for all” and “nicer homes” than they’d had, as the Hotliners suggested, many Africville residents ended up in what Clairmont describes as “run-down decrepit city-owned housing slated for redevelopment.” And when rumours circulated that public housing might be built for the former Africville residents in a white neighbourhood, there were protests from whites.

Why did the City really obliterate Africville?

City officials to this day insist their intentions were pure, that they only wanted to improve living conditions for the people there. Hoped-for industrial development, they claim, had nothing to do with the decision. But it’s worth noting the City threatened expropriation and used intimidation to force the last resident out of his house in 1970. Why such strong-arm tactics? According to Clairmont, “construction work on a new bridge was being delayed because its Halifax base was to be built on his property.” So much for the better life.

And that promise of a better life? It simply never happened. Before relocation, just 10 per cent of Africville residents depended on social assistance. After relocation, more than half needed welfare to survive. By a year after the relocation, in fact, 95 per cent of the former residents said the City got the best of the relocation deal. They still believe that.

Given all of that, it’s hard not to agree with them or with the UN investigator who wrote in his report last week that “the community was forcefully removed without proper compensation.”

Our treatment of the former Africville residents, as the UN makes clear, was shameful. It’s way past time to make amends.