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Schulich Law Professor Michelle Williams talks racism with UN working group

- November 7, 2016

Left to right: Chad Lucas, Carolann Wright-Parks, Wanda Thomas, Angela Simmonds, Shawna Hoyte QC, Alicia Arana-Stirling and Godfred Chongatera. (Michelle Williams photo)
Left to right: Chad Lucas, Carolann Wright-Parks, Wanda Thomas, Angela Simmonds, Shawna Hoyte QC, Alicia Arana-Stirling and Godfred Chongatera. (Michelle Williams photo)

Representatives from the Schulich School of Law’s Indigenous Blacks & Mi'kmaq (IB&M) Initiative met with a UN working group last month at the Black Cultural Centre to examine the situation of African Nova Scotians and to make recommendations to address problems.

The working group formally known as the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) was invited by the federal government to take part in an historic fact-finding mission in Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, and Montreal. Its prerogative: to locate systemic gaps in the “human rights protections of people of African descent living in Canada.”

The Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs and IB&M Initiative co-facilitated the Halifax site meeting on October 19. They helped presenters submit information on issues including underemployment, environmental racism, child welfare and youth, judicial diversity, and reparations for slavery.

Professor Michelle Williams, the director of the IB&M Initiative, presented on street checks, corrections and the lack of compensation for Gerald Barton. (Gerald Barton, an African Nova Scotian man, lost his case against the provincial government for a wrongful sexual assault conviction in 1969.) She also explained why African Nova Scotians are a distinct people.  

“The meeting was a chance for African Nova Scotians across the province to take stock of our collective successes and challenges and mobilize for further action,” said Prof. Williams. “The IB&M Initiative’s involvement in this historic international meeting reflects Dalhousie’s strategic directions, which include building partnerships and engaging in service.” 

With Prof. Williams was third-year Schulich law student Angela Simmonds, who presented on unresolved Preston land title issues. Law school alumni Shawna Hoyte (QC), Alicia Arana-Stirling and Godfred Chongatera presented on the intersection of education and criminal justice issues, the importance of African Nova Scotian representation in the judiciary and legal profession, and African immigration, respectively. Current JD student Rosy Thompson and LLM student Maria Dugas submitted research that informed the presentations.

Working group expressed “deep concerns”

In a statement to the media released at the end of its tour, the working group noted the importance of Nova Scotia’s Africville as a “site of memory,” the use of pre-sentencing Cultural Impact Assessments when considering the province’s history of discrimination, and the restorative justice model currently in-use in the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry.

It also said it is “deeply concerned” about the human rights situations of African Canadians.

“Across Canada, many people of African descent continue to live in poverty and poor health, have low educational attainment, and are overrepresented at all levels of the criminal justice system,” said the report. “Despite the wealth of information and data on socio-economic indicators, there is a serious lack of race-based data and research that could inform prevention, intervention, and treatment strategies for African Canadians.”

Upon leaving the meeting, Prof. Williams was overwhelmed by Canada’s overall lack of institutional change when it comes to African Canadians — especially considering this is the International Decade for People of African Descent.

“I was encouraged by the work that people continue to do in spite of these conditions, but I was discouraged by the fact that meaningful change for the average African Nova Scotian is deterred by another common theme: no seat or voice at the tables,” said Prof. Williams. “We have the statistics, we have the history, yet we are not listened to and meaningful change is not forthcoming.””

WGEPAD will release a comprehensive report of its findings next September. The next step, Prof. Williams advises, will need to be local — the coalition of groups that advised WGEPAD will now discuss their findings with the provincial government.

“We can’t rely on the UN committee to change the world for us here,” said Prof. Williams. “It’s important for us to invite the provincial government to hear the detailed recommendations of the various sectors and community organizations. We want to work with them to make the change.”

Click here for more information on the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.


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