Black History Month and Paradoxes of Narrating the Nation: Black-Mi'kmaq Relations

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Paula Madden, University of Sussex
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the VP Equity series on Black History Month in Canada.

Black History Month is an interesting time of year. All across the country African Canadians celebrate their achievements. They assert their belonging and an equal claim to the project that we call Canada based on their many contributions to building Canada and also for their length of tenure. The stories of Black Pioneers are shared and Black participation in wars such as the War of 1812 is told and retold. As well, the story of the first settlers of Priceville chronicled in the National Film Board of Canada’s “Speakers for the Dead” is viewed in community centres, libraries and a host of other gathering places in different communities across the country. These stories are appropriately told as part of the history of Canada as a nation.

What strikes me about the stories that some African descendants tell about themselves and their place in the nation building project in Canada is how absent Indigenous peoples are in these narratives.  Black History Month is, in part, an attempt by African Canadians to write themselves back into the history of a nation that has documented overwhelmingly the story of European Canadians to the near exclusion of non-European others. Is the writing of the history of Canada and the telling of the story of Canadians destined to be at worst a one sided chronicle of the Anglo-French or, at best, a collaboration of settler groups who maintain the myth of terra nullius?

Before I proceed further I want to point to some issues that cannot be taken up fully here but require further research in the social sciences and humanities.

First, the use of the term ‘settler’ in relation to African Canadians, or any other immigrant group, is not meant to elide the clear difference in power between white settlers who are part of the colonial project and Africans who were forced to settle due to slavery or escape from slavery. The case of settlers in Oro County is an apt demonstration of this power differential. White settlers had the power to evict Indigenous peoples from their land and, likewise, the black settlers who later occupied the land. Second, there is a need to work through how to think of blacks who arrived as slaves or even freed slaves in relation to Indigenous peoples and European colonialist of both. At the heart of the matter is this question: If African descendants are not settlers on Turtle Island similar to Europeans then what are they?

The writing of history is never complete. It is a task of construction and reconstruction which applies the tools that historian and others have at their disposal and it need not proceed as an exercise in erasure. The story of Priceville is good example of how attention to all the histories of occupation of that land could have resulted in a fuller and more complete telling of the story of what we now know as Canada.

The film “Speakers for the Dead” tells the story of the first permanent settlement in Oro County and the settlers who were people of African descent. In this film we learn that the first settlers were black. We also hear from some of the descendants of the pre-Confederation black community and from some fourth generation Scottish descendants. What was missing from this film was the history and voices of the Saugeen First Nations who had lived in that territory, their traditional territory, for thousands of years. They were forced off that territory by colonial administrators and white settlers using scare tactics and other unscrupulous means which, as we are told in the film, was the same fate suffered by the Black Oro settlers.

During the period of the black settlement at Oro County the Saugeen First Nations were still trying to resist their land from being taken over. The Saugeen First Nations launched a land claim in 1994 in an effort to gain compensation for the lost lands. The film, “Speakers for the Dead,” was made during the period of the Saugeen First Nations fight for compensation of their lost land, including what became known as Priceville.

Just as migrants of African descent have a history that is contained within their memories and on the lands they settle, so too do the original inhabitants of that land. The story of Priceville is important in excavating that community to reveal black presence on that landscape and dispelled the commonly held belief that it was originally settled by Europeans.  While the film succeeded in illuminating black presence as preceding that of Europeans, it also retold the story of black occupation and dispossession as the primary narrative of that land, thereby erasing the prior ownership of the Saugeen First Nations.

This situation of recovering black histories while simultaneously erasing indigenous presence is not new. It exists in both historic and contemporary works.  It is present in films and in the books written by African Canadians as an antidote to their own erasure. While I make no claim as to the intention of writers of those histories, I do believe such omissions are complicit in the continuing erasure of Indigenous peoples as do the long list of works narrating the settlement of Europeans in Indigenous North America. Perhaps an important question for African Canadians as other immigrant groups to grapple with vis-a-vis writing our subaltern histories is this: Is it possible to write our stories in the tradition of the hegemonic Anglo-French narrative without losing an important and cogent critique of continuing colonialism?

George Elliot Clarke and Harvey Amani Whitfield are two writers of Black Canada who explicitly confront this issue. Whitfield’s study, Blacks on the Border: The Black Refugees in British North America, is a significant writing on black refugees from 1815-1860, and the  book is used in history courses on both sides of the border as a major corrective to the erasure of the Black contributions to nation building in Canada. Whitfield is unabashed in imposing the vocabulary of “indigenous” on the African population in Mi’kmaki pre-Confederation. This is an important and serious issue. Mi’kmaki is what we now know as the four Atlantic Provinces, the state of Maine and the Gaspe Peninsula.

Generations of students may engage uncritically with a piece of work that claims that there are/were ‘Indigenous Africans’ in Mi’kmaki and, thereby, narrate an identity claim not tied to Indigenous peoples in the America. There are of course descendants of the pre-Confederation black community with Mi’kmaq ancestry. And there is a robust debate about whether in Canada it is appropriate to think of this group as Métis or, in the vocabulary used elsewhere, as ‘Black Indians.’ However, the latter is not what I am addressing here. Rather, I am addressing the way in which Clarke in Odysseys Home: Mapping African Canadian Literature  use “indigenous” as a way to distinguish between what he calls the “centuries old African heritage populations” and the immigrant black population.  Clarke’s work is emphatic in asserting his “Indigenous blackness” in Canada generally and in Mi’kmaki in particular.

Mi’kmaki is unceded territory. There are no land surrender treaties; and it was never lost in war. It is simply put, occupied territory. As I note in my book African Nova Scotian-Mi’kmaq Relations, we must engage with this fact as we attempt to “write in” black histories into the constitution of what is to Canada. While writing the subaltern histories of Black Canadians  disrupt the story of Anglo-French primacy, unless we also account for our relationship to the continuing dispossession of  first peoples such writings are as problematic as those made by Euro-Canadians.

In my work I argue there is a need to think through notions of “Indigenous blackness” and its relationship to assertions of “indigenous whiteness,” that is, the tendency of European descendants to deny their “foreign-ness” and, particularly, their coloniality in relation to first peoples. Despite their difference, both are discourses of erasure. I say this not only because of the misleading nature of some claims of black indigeneity but also because there are many examples of the descendants of the pre-Confederation black communities acting with disregard for the circumstances, interests and rights of Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous peoples. We see this, for example, in the reparations movement to recover the land taken from the black residents of the historic community of Africville in the 1960s. This movement “won” a victory when the provincial government returned some of the land to the descendants of that black community. The land in the district of Eskikwa’kik is given back to the Africans who settled there; and they are the ones who are recognized as the national group against whom a terrible injustice of land appropriation and cultural genocide was perpetrated.

I need to be clear here. I am in no way suggesting that the razing of Africville was not a terrible injustice against the African Canadian community. It continues to have serious consequences for the families who lived there; just as the takeover of Mi’kmaki and the displacement of Kluscap people had and continues to have terrible consequences for the Indigenous people. While I think that the Black community merited some form of compensation what is more difficult to reconcile is that any non-Indigenous community should be given land as reparation for their dispossession given the ongoing land claims of Mi’kmaq people remain unsettled. In accepting land as compensation it is difficult not to understand this as complicity in the continuing dispossession of Mi’kmaq peoples.  In the writing of our histories and in the telling of our stories in lands that were falsely characterized in European settler narratives as terra nullius, as having no Indigenous peoples, we are also complicit in the dispossession of those whose territories we occupy.

There is a contradiction between creating ways of addressing the absence of African Canadians in historic and contemporary records while simultaneously perpetuating the marginality and erasure of Indigenous peoples. The presence of African descendants, like European and other migrant peoples in Indigenous North America, has consequences for the people found here upon their arrival. The colonial conditions and policies that brought Africans to the Americas still are present for the Indigenous peoples in Canada, as they struggle to resolve their historic land base and claims, cultures and identities.

Black History Month is complicated for several reasons. One reason is the invisibility of Indigenous peoples in narratives of nation that we put forward to correct or broaden the historic record which privileges the English and French settlers. Absent from our conversations as African descendants are questions such as: About whose land do we speak when we are claiming belonging and equal ownership to Europeans?  On whose indigenous territories are communities such as Beechville, Africville, Priceville and Buxton located? What does our presence in this territory mean to and for Indigenous peoples?  Can we claim and assert our place in the narratives of this nation, such as recognition for our role in the War of 1812, without simultaneous troubling our participation given that the land fought over belonged to Indigenous people?

By way of conclusion let me say this: One of the challenges facing all those engaged in writing African Canadian histories is to narrate the nation in ways that do not replicate the myth of terra nullius and the erasure against which we so valiantly struggle. I write not on behalf of Indigenous peoples or as an advocate for Indigenous peoples; they are guided by their own elders, knowledges and experience. Rather, I write here as a descendant of African slaves brought to Turtle Island, as one who is shaped in part by a colonial project that left Africans in the diaspora dispossessed of their own lands, cultures and identities. This experience imbues me with an unshakeable commitment to work against every attempt to gain my complicity in a continuing colonial project of dispossession on Turtle Island. It is from this location that I continue to speak/write. 

Paula C. Madden, author of African Nova Scotian Mi’kmaw Relations is a DPhil candidate (Law) at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.


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