More than two years after the United Nations called on Canada to apologize for its history of enslaving black people and consider paying reparations for the abusive practice, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still won’t say whether he will.
The Fall 2017 report, from the UN Human Rights Council, detailed the slavery that was allowed to continue for hundreds of years from the 1500s to 1834 and its link to the systemic discrimination that black Canadians still experience almost two centuries later. The report included dozens of recommendations to right the injustices, with an apology and possible reparations at the top of the list.
Asked twice Tuesday why he hasn’t acted on that recommendation and whether he will, Mr. Trudeau did not directly answer and instead talked about other government initiatives.
Advocates and academics call the delay in acting scandalous, purposeful neglect and a denial of the black experience in Canada.
In response to protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the United States and Canada, spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week, Mr. Trudeau has addressed the persistence of anti-black racism in Canada, but stopped short of announcing new policies or other changes to combat it.
Demonstrations in Canada have been largely peaceful, unlike in the U.S., where violent clashes between the police and public are escalating. U.S. President Donald Trump has been accused of inciting some of the violence and on Monday threatened to call in the military unless state governors act to quell demonstrations.
Asked about the unfolding crisis south of the border, Mr. Trudeau took a 21-second pause before answering.
“We all watch in horror and consternation what’s going on in the United States,” Mr. Trudeau said while avoiding commenting on Mr. Trump directly.
On how he would respond to UN recommendations for his own government, Mr. Trudeau was unspecific. “We will continue to work with the black community on the things we need to do," he said.
Those words fall short for Afua Cooper, a professor of Black history at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who said the lack of action is inexcusable almost three years after the UN report.
“The Prime Minister has to do better," Prof. Cooper said. “It’s scandalous and I’m outraged by it. It says to me that the federal government of Canada doesn’t take black people’s issues seriously.”
At a 2018 Senate committee, witnesses called for an apology and reparations. Without it, Michelle Williams, the director of the Indigenous, Blacks and Mi’kmaq Initiative at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law, said Canada would continue “hiding behind the myth of racial equality.”
Fast forward to 2020, Prof. Williams said Tuesday “the delay tells me that we continue to be the subjects of purposeful neglect by governments."
The lack of action, stems in part from a limited understanding of slavery in Canada, said Barrington Walker, a history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.
While Canada’s experience with slavery is different from the mass enslavement on plantations in the U.S., it is no less important, said Prof. Walker, who is also the Waterloo, Ont., university’s senior adviser on equity, diversity and inclusion. For centuries in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, black people were held as property and forced to work as servants, cooks, farm labourers and trades people.
Before the British conquered New France, he said, Indigenous people were also enslaved.
He said he was disappointed by Mr. Trudeau’s “non-response” and said an apology would help to educate Canadians on the connection between slavery and the discrimination unfolding today and show black people they are viewed as equal citizens.
Wealth disparities that black people experience are a consequence of slavery and make a “powerful argument” for reparations, Prof. Walker said. Generations of slaves were forced to work without accruing wealth so “if you are a descendant from slaves, you can’t make up that ground because essentially folks have had a 400-year head start,” he said.
In 2018, Canada recognized the UN Decade for People of African Descent. The Push Coalition was established to make sure Canada acted on commitments related to the decade and made in the 2019 budget to people of African descent in Canada.
The group was supposed to disband in January, 2020, but Richard Sharpe, a lead member, said it’s staying put because of the delayed roll out of allocated funds. So far, he said there is “no political appetite” for an apology or reparations, so his group is pushing for Ottawa to act on other recommendations from the UN report and monitoring what happens to funding already promised.
Despite the delays, Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard said she takes a glass-half-full approach and is hopeful that the government will soon take steps toward reconciliation. If the House approves Liberal MP Majid Jowhari’s motion to recognize emancipation day in Canada (the day the British Empire abolished slavery), she said it could be the first step to an apology.
Federal party leaders addressed Mr. Floyd’s killing in speeches in the House of Commons Tuesday. The UN report made clear that Canada is not immune from police brutality, and found “excessive use of force and killings by the police,” particularly in response to “cases involving vulnerable people of African descent, who are mentally ill or otherwise in crisis.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh repeated his Monday call that the federal government immediately start collecting race-based data so it can better identify where the discrimination exists and how to change it.
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