Africville: Halifax’s Urban Geography of Racism

•February 27, 2012 • 1 Comment

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Article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of the Leveller

The houses near the Bedford Basin were painted all the colours of the rainbow. Residents described it as their “little piece of heaven.” For nearly 200 years, Nova Scotia’s Black population had fought and bought their way into a small community called Africville. It symbolized freedom and independence to an early population of former slaves and refugees; their descendants proudly called it home.

In 1964 however, the city of Halifax decided that Africville was a slum because it lacked infrastructure, which Halifax itself would not provide. The city perversely justified displacing the population for industrial benefits. Residents were driven from their homes into scattered public housing, their belongings transported in city dump trucks.

Africville formally existed at the margins of Halifax’s white community from 1848 until Dec. 30, 1969. Its population of refugees, escaped slaves, free men and women, and Loyalists from the war of 1812 began settling in Halifax as early as 1761.

Halifax refused social services and infrastructural development to Africville from beginning to end. Although forced displacement of residents did not commence until the 1960s, the writing was on the wall since at least 1915.

According to the minutes of Halifax City Council from Dec. 15, 1915, “The Africville portion of Campbell Road will always be an industrial district and it is desirable that industrial operations should be assisted in any way that is not prejudicial to the interests of the public. In fact, we may be obliged in the future to consider the interest of the industry first.”

Clearly, “the interests of the public” did not include the Black people who lived there.

Halifax surrounded Africville with four open-faced dumps, a bone meal plant, assorted factories, port facilities for handling coal, an infectious disease hospital and more. According to Denise Allen, vice president of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, “the dirtiest, smelliest, most toxic industries were located within earshot of the homes where children played, whereas all good paying jobs in the[se] industries that strangled Africville were reserved for Whites.”

Though Africville residents paid taxes, they received no plumbing, garbage/sanitation services, or other basics to which taxpayers are entitled. As Gus Wedderburn of the Halifax Human Rights Advisory Committee describes in the National Film Board documentary, Remember Africville, “Where the pavement ended, Africville began.”

In 1947, Halifax City Council designated Africville as industrial land, declaring on Jan. 15, 1948, “the property could be cleared in case some industry might want to go there.”

Just in case.

Later that year, the wells from which the community drew their drinking water became contaminated from growing industrial waste. Though the city approved new sanitation and water developments, they were never built. Instead, by 1955 the city relocated their dump to Africville and closed the Africville school. As part of the project of “desegregation,” Black children were streamlined into remedial learning programs in 1957 – they were previously barred by law from attending White schools.

By the 1960s, the city decided Africville needed to be expropriated entirely for industrial use, and justified this decision on the basis that it did not meet minimum sanitation standards. Rather than using some of the generations of tax dollars to improve Africville’s infrastructure by paving roads or building the long-promised plumbing, Halifax dismantled the community and dispersed the residents into public housing projects throughout Halifax. According to city officials interviewed for Remember Africville, many of the homes to which residents were moved were already condemned for demolition.

The policy of coercion and visual intimidation was the technique of choice to force residents out.  “When someone agreed to move or be moved, that same day they tore the house down…that had a psychological effect, so this was a method that they used,” Africville resident Archie Dixon reflects. There were no public consultations, and most people who left for substandard temporary public housing were given only $500 to start their lives anew.

The city demolished the last house on Jan. 2, 1970. It belonged to Aaron “Pa” Carvery. “The city gave the Africville people no deal at all,“ Pa reflects. “Some were put into places far worse than where they left.”

According to Clarence Carvery, who was a boy when Africville was destroyed, “I remember the trucks coming. I remember Mrs. Sarah Mountain’s house coming down. Torn down, never took a stitch of furniture…[never] gave her time to take a stitch of furniture out of her home…Mr. Jensey was in the hospital…They bulldozed the man’s house while he was in the hospital. Man came home he had nowhere to go.”

Where Africville once stood, a beacon of independence and pride for Black Canadians since the 1700s, there now exists a Memorial and Interpretive Centre…and a park for dogs.

“We are profoundly sorry and apologize to each and every one of you,” Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly said in a February 2010 news conference, announcing plans to build the centre.

Though the United Nations recommended that reparations be paid in 2004, there will be no resettlement and no city money will go towards paying reparations. According to the Halifax Media Co-op, the site will remain city property, except for areas that have been sold to private developers out of which a new community named Mont Blanc* (French for White Mountain) is developing. According to Allen,

“With the stroke of a pen he [Mayor Peter Kelly] has denigrated Africville’s past and reduced our vibrant Black community to a dog park, nothing but the token of a replica church to serve our memory.”

Canada appropriates the image of smuggling persecuted Black slaves to safety though the Underground Railroad as part of the nationalist project to differentiate between American racism and Canadian tolerance. Yet, it is worth remembering that while civil rights activists were fighting state racism in the United States, Halifax was in the midst of destroying one of the oldest and most independent Black communities in Canadian history.

*The community of Mont Blanc is named for one of the two ships that collided in the Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917. The ensuing explosion destroyed much of Halifax and neighbouring areas.


White Cans, White Lies

•February 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Originally published January 2012 in the Leveller, Issue 4.4

Polar Bear's probable reaction to learning it is inadvertently selling Coca-Cola

White Cans, White Lies: Coca-Cola’s Polar Bear Quest
Ajay Parasram

My decrepit wool coat has tears in each of its pockets. The holes lead straight to the inner lining of the jacket; not a good place for pens that inevitably stab my knee cap when I walk, but definitely a good place to smuggle drinks into movie theatres.

Rifling through the depths of my coat liner this past December in a dark cinema, I triumphantly retrieved my smuggled beverage just before the airing of Coca-Cola’s “Arctic Home” holiday advertisement. Turns out the corporation partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to donate $2 million over the next five years towards saving the Arctic.

Set to borrowed footage of polar bears with a tear-jerking introduction about the fragility of the Arctic, a gentle feminine voice-over says:

“As a symbol of our commitment, this holiday we’re turning our red cans white, and contributing $2 million over five years to WWF polar bear conservation efforts. We’ll also match donations made at”

Since first appropriating the image of the polar bear in 1922, Coca-Cola has used the bears to generate a great deal of profit – especially around the holiday season. In 1993, the company hit it big by animating polar bears. The first animated holiday ad positioned the bears in their Arctic homeland, showing them cracking chilled Cokes while watching the aurora borealis as if it were a movie.

Ken Stewart was the first to animate the bears for Coca-Cola and says he was inspired to do so because of how much his dog resembled a polar bear as a puppy. When Stewart was asked to design the ad, he first associated Coke with movie watching. He then combined polar bears drinking Coke while watching the aurora borealis into the 1993 debut “Northern Lights” ad.

Commenting on how the bears are made to do human things like drinking from bottles, Stewart says on the Coca-Cola website, “That’s really what we were trying to do – create a character that’s innocent, fun and reflects the best attributes we like to call ‘human.’ The bears are cute, mischievous, playful and filled with fun.”

Filled with fun though they may be, there’s nothing fun about how triflingly small Coca Cola’s commitment is to its top sales-bears.

Financial analyst Richard McCormick told the Leveller over email, “Coca-Cola earned $8.5 billion in profits according to the last 12 months of data.” That means Coca-Cola is willing to repay the hard-working polar bears’ 90 years of service to the company with a solid 0.02 percent of one year’s profits. To be fair though, the company also said it would contribute up to another $1 million to match donations made at That would raise its contribution to 0.035 percent of 12 months’ worth of profits.

The campaign fits nicely into a liberal sentiment of solving serious ecological issues through buying more stuff. Want to save the polar bears? Just buy the white can and look for the white top on the bottles! Coca-Cola set itself up as a kind of charity treasure hunt. But when the campaign failed to increase sales halfway through the holiday season, the white can campaign was ended two months ahead of schedule. Turns out regular Coke drinkers were upset that the white can looked too much like the silver Diet Coke can. The company has released a fact sheet online walking its customers through the differences between the white and traditional red cans. So much for the corporation’s noble proclamation: “We’re turning our cans white because turning our backs wasn’t an option.”

It is somewhat perverse that Coca-Cola and its bottling subsidiaries portray themselves as good corporate citizens with cute or troubling ads about polar bears doing human things while at the same time exploiting their workers worldwide.

Coca-Cola has been complicit in the use of paramilitary forces in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America to silence, intimidate, and even kill labour activists. As noted by labour rights lawyer Daniel Kovalik in the Canadian National Film Board-produced documentary The Coca-Cola Case, 470 workers were killed from 2002 to 2009 alone. The website notes that although the company consistently denies any involvement in kidnapping, torture, intimidation, and murder, “the company has fought every effort to have an independent investigation into these allegations.” As singer/songwriter David Rovics describes, “Coke is the drink of the death squad!”

Thinking about the actual corporate history of Coca-Cola as I was accosted by their shameless holiday advertisement in the cinema last month, I took a long sip of my bubbly beverage. I relished the fact that my drink wasn’t a Coke, but a President’s Choice Club Soda-Low Sodium. A PC club soda isn’t necessarily better than a Coke, and my selection won’t save the polar bears of the Arctic. But neither will Coca-Cola, despite its best efforts to make us think it may.

In Your Hands!

•June 23, 2010 • 2 Comments

A large group of people waits to enter an immigrant processing centre or employment insurance office. After up to 18 months of waiting, simply for the right to work and send money home to their families, the people en masse charge the desk, smashing the glass that divide them and break into dance together. This post is meant to elaborate on the processes illustrated in the video and appreciate the revolutionary message associated with destroying socially constructed barriers that divide, rather than unite.

In the beginning, the people in the video dutifully go through the bureaucratic processes that lend legal legitimacy to their existence as human beings, yet are obviously not optimistic that whatever ruling they receive will be to their benefit. “…And everytime you promise me: not much longer now. I’ve had to put my whole, world, in your hands.” The silent bureaucrats on the other side of the transparent/invisible/imaginary barrier (read: border) go about their work, safe in the belief that if they dutifully perform their tasks, the well oiled bureaucratic machinery will fulfill the liberal-democratic promise, that is, achieve the “greatest good for the greatest number.” They avoid conversation with the Other on the other side of the barrier, for fear of contaminating their judgement with human emotion. Sometimes, their superiors instruct, this means that people “fall through the cracks” but ultimately you have to “break a few eggs to make an omelette.”

There is no shortage of clichés in the bureaucracy to create and enforce the barrier that separates the government pawns (bureaucrats) from the impoverished global majority that elite interests within states must control to maintain their positions of privilege. By implicating the pawns in the process of state control, government employees can ignore the curious similarities between a necktie and a noose.

It is worth noting that the common cliché, to “let loose,” is often demonstrated by the loosening of one’s necktie. Conversely, this expression suggests that the opposite, to perhaps “tighten up” is to bottle up one’s untamed self and conform to social expectations in order to excel and be a good member of society. The fear of the internal self and what “it” might be capable of thinking or doing is the a foundation of why the State (especially the United States) employed Freudian psychoanalysts in the aftermath of Second World War to create a conformist society. After seeing what they believed to be “letting loose” in World War II, the government believed that the deliberate construction of a conformist society with the help of psychoanalysts could suppress the inner “communist” or “nazi” deep within the human subconscious and protect freedom, democracy, and capitalism. (See: The Century of the Self)

I appreciate this video because it could easily have told a down-trodden story, or a story of class struggle where one dominates the other. It did neither. The human emotion and common human experience of care for one’s family caused a revolt against the revolting and dehumanizing process of applying for the right to work. “Mister Mister, you say you’re trying! But don’t you know, my brother’s dying?! You say it won’t be long, but why am I so cursed for where I am born?” At this point, the others hear this all-to-familiar story and have had enough. They charge the imaginary barrier and “reorganize its molecules” in a way that hurts no humans directly. They grab the paperwork, the physical record of their humiliating experiences, and tear it to confetti as they dance joyously. Joy in “letting loose,” Joy in the recognition of the human condition in one another, Joy in the dismantling of the bureaucratic process that says you are an Other and have to prove yourself as being worthy of the right to work to ensure that your family survives.

Finally, the joyous transformation within this video is where the bureaucrats themselves throw away their paperwork, make confetti of it, and join the party. They all dance together, as the barrier that divided them has been reduced to rubble and they can all be human beings again. Utopian perhaps, but no more so than the utopian assumptions underlying a global system of distribution that ensures 3/4 of humanity live on virtually nothing while less than a 1/4 live in luxury.

I’m not opposed to some degree of infringement on people’s liberty. The example commonly used by Professor Chomsky is that of a grandfather restraining a child such that she is not hit by oncoming traffic. This is a justifiable imposition of authority. It is, however, unjustifiable, to violently prevent the global Other from seeking the means to feed their families, especially since it is the neoliberal policies of the so-called “Have” states that accelerate the immiserising of the so-called “Have-not” states amidst the echoing reverberations of colonialism. There is room here for much deeper analysis of the illogical proposition of “illegal migrants” but that is an entire post by itself…

Democratic Right to Protest Protected, Unless the Protest is Succeeding

•May 24, 2010 • Leave a Comment

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On May 21, 2010 about 60 people gathered outside the Vancouver Art Gallery and marched to the Fairmont Pan Pacific Hotel to support one another in their opposition to the G8 University Summit taking place on the University of British Colombia campus over the May long weekend.  The reasons and specifics of why all these people are opposed to international financial institutions, the neoliberalizing of the academy demonstrated through the merging of corporate/state/academic interests, and so forth are not the focus of this post.  Everyone has their particular reasons for opposing the G8 University Summit and the G8/G20 more generally, what interests me here is the illussion of one’s democratic right to protest in so-called freedom loving democratic countries. I mean to discuss in brief the dichotomy of accounts of Friday’s protest before discussing the role of protest and its relationship to the liberal state.

If you believe the CBC’s coverage of this issue (see the CBC coverage) what you’ll see is a carefully constructed press release from the Police describing pushy protestors who were trying to storm a closed door meeting in a hotel. Dismayed that they couldn’t enter, they block an intersection to protest the delegates who were on their way to dinner in a tour bus. Mainstream media tells us that the protestors inflicted damage to police property and that they had to be removed.

What actually happened is considerably different. I witnessed with my own eyes: officers jeering and taunting peaceful protestors, from as petty as repeatedly stepping on an organizer’s foot like a delinquent child while she asked him to stop – to shoving an older woman off her bicycle, elbowing a woman in the breast, punching, screaming, kicking, and swinging at protestors, destroying protestor’s property (kicking bicyles, even forcibly cutting a man’s spokes off because the officer slammed his peddle into the wheel of man’s bike) seizing of people’s property without a warrant or any discernable due cause, and more. The alleged ‘storming’ of the hotel is a fiction, as the main event outside the doors of the hotel in question was a performance by a local choir called “The Solidarity Notes” and then a festive pinata and a few speeches.

The issue underlying this conflict of testimonies gets to the heart of the role of protest in contempory democratic society. It is imperative for liberal democracies to demonstrate that not only is protest allowed, it is facilitated and even encouraged. The government goes to great effort to establish “designated protest zones” and sometimes will even televise protestors into the room of the meetings they are seeking to protest to ensure that the privileged minority ‘hear the voice of dissent’ without disrupting business as usual.

The moment protest actually disrupts something from happening however, (ie, succeeds) things ‘escalate.’ The anti-G8 Protest last Friday in Vancouver was entirely peaceful, and things got ugly when the police/hotel’s diversionary strategy to smuggle the G8 University heads out of the Hotelwere identified and confronted by skilled organizers who were able to figure out that the source of the protest (the wealthy heads of universities stowed away securely in a tour bus) was sneaking away and successfully rallied the group to block the bus’s path so that the protest could continue. This is the moment when the police quickly transitioned from paternalistic chauvinists to angry, militant arms of state power. When it became clear that the determined protestors would not let the bus pass before they delivered their message, the police made a tactical decision that would get a nod of approval from Niccolo Machievelli. Hit them hard, hit them strong, and make it quick, then control the framing of it in the media. Police picked up their bicycles and used them as weapons against protestors. They had an officer walking around with a giant gun that looked like something from a science fiction movie. They punched, shoved, kicked – did everything short of pistol whipping people – to clear the path so the hungry delegates on board would be able to get to their dinner before it got cold. Police ran alongside the bus as the driver, no doubt nervous about hitting civilians, was urged to “keep going” amidst the chaos that was quickly unfolding. (See one account on the Vancouver Media Coop here) In this moment, when the interests of the elite was actually threatened (and by threatened, of course I am referring to the horrible consequences of their dinner being less hot) the state had no recourse but to use violence to prevent peaceful, unarmed, protestors from delivering their message.

The moral framing of protest in mainstream media, especially in Vancouver on account of the 2010 Olympics, is carefully constructed by state propagandists to emphasize the benevolence of the state authorities and divide-and-rule tactics to diminish the chances of protests actually stopping something from happening. The state often does not succeed, as several examples of people blocking and chasing the Olympic torch from their communities illustrated, but these examples are not highlighted. When they are highlighted, it is always done in such a way as to build animosity against those who practice democracy in the streets and those who watch it unfold on their television screens. It is imperative for the State to highlight that we live in the “End of History.” Democracy must be seen to flourish perfectly here, afterall, it’s not like we’re Thailand, right? The protection of that nationalistic imaginary – that all the things that people might protest are really not big issues here in Canada (things like indigenous rights, the rights of women, environmental devastation, neoliberal funding cuts to that make it difficult or impossible for the poor to contest injustice in the state’s legal system, etc) insulates the state from criticism, and prevents the masses from feeling real connections with those who must take their struggle for a better society for all into the streets.

Counter-Hegemonic Bloc Strengthening, Not Weakening, in Latin America

•February 11, 2010 • 1 Comment

Some important steps forward for equality as Evo Morales kicks off his second mandate in Bolivia, putting into practice the gender equality targets set in the new constitution he pushed for.  While many governments push for some sort of gender floor, few achieve such high representation or what scholars  like Jill Vickers have identified as a critical mass (which might not be 30%, 50%, or even 60%) necessary to balance the representation in legislatures to actually represent issues affecting women.  Morales has gone further, while he has more than doubled the amount of seats in the legislature for women (from 22 to 46), he has appointed the first female Labour Minister, half his cabinet are women, and a third of those women are indigenous social activists.  Amidst hordes of slander from the opposition, the far right in Latin America, and also the world over, Morales was re-elected in a landslide victory with 64% of the popular vote.  The victory is not his though, it is the product of generations of struggle of the Bolivian women’s movement and indigenous movement.  When he was first elected, everyone was counting down the days until his government collapsed, it seems for now, they are wrong.

The new bloc in the region seems to be strengthening rather than weakening, with Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, the recently returned Jose Ortega of the Sandanistas in Nicaragua, and ever resilient Cuba.  If the US decide to be less destructive in Latin America under President Obama (I’m not holding my breath) we may yet see a very interesting institutionalizing of the still developing counter-hegemonic movement in regional politics.  Caribbean countries (ex: Grenada, Jamaica) have been the practicing ground for US imperial interests throughout the Cold War as they ‘perfected’ their strategies in Latin America (ex: Chile) and then prepare the strategies for export to the Middle East and Central Asia, might find their voice once more and start practicing a politics that speaks to their domestic needs rather than having to shield themselves from coups backed by the US.  (Sadly, Canada is no longer free from this criticism, as we have been very much involved in the ousting of democratically elected President Aristide and one of our Flagship NGOs, Rights and Democracy, has helped pave the way for the installation of the current regime.)  Interesting politics is brewing in Trinidad & Tobago as well, though speculating as to whether it will amount to any form of meaningful social change would be premature at this point.