Dalhousie University and the University of King's College have partnered with the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia to host a groundbreaking meeting of the Universities Studying Slavery consortium this month — the first USS event ever to be held outside of the United States.
The conference, which runs October 18-21, will be the first of this scale to place the experience of African Nova Scotians at the heart of the discussion. Leading experts on the history of slavery and the fight for reparations from around the world will speak alongside respected African Nova Scotian voices representing academic, cultural and political circles.
Keynotes will be delivered by Sir Hilary Beckles, Dr. George Elliott Clarke, H.E. David Comissiong, Dr. Afua Cooper, Dr. Sylvia D. Hamilton, H.E. John Mahama, and Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield. (Seen left to right in alphabetical order below)
Taking place between the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront Hotel and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, registration for the conference is open to all and attendance by members of the community is encouraged.
We spoke with four members of the conference organizing committee to learn more.
Who is this conference for?
Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia (BCCNS), says the conference will offer the general public insight as to how slavery functioned in society.
“You know, when we think of slavery we know … of the effects it’s had on marginalized communities, but do we really understand the depth of how slavery was a business? How it was … an economic driver of the time?”
Grosse says the conference will also offer something unique for people of African descent, who “live with the trauma of slavery.” Specifically, he sees the conference offering an opportunity to “know that history existed but understand that that history doesn’t define them.”
Theresa Rajack-Talley, vice-provost, equity & inclusion at Dalhousie, says the conference will provide “a respectful space for creating collaborative links between academics, professionals, practitioners, and the community to share knowledge and engage in discussions …. on how to redress the lingering effects of colonization and how we can move forward.”
Why is it important to bring this conference to Halifax?
University of King’s College President William Lahey says the conference deals with a topic that is “global” in scope, and “very relevant to Canada.”
“Slavery and the enslavement of Black people was part of our historical reality in Canada, and that includes connections to our institutions of higher education, here in Nova Scotia and beyond,” says Lahey.
For Grosse, bringing the conference to Halifax “speaks to the longevity of the Black community in Nova Scotia. The fact that the Black community in Nova Scotia spans back over 400 years, it’s multi-generational and it’s practically the birthplace of Black culture and heritage in Canada.”
Rajack-Talley says that the conference provides an important opportunity to correct misconceptions about Canada’s involvement in the slave trade.
“What is most known about the Atlantic slave trade is that it used a system of three-way trans-Atlantic exchanges—known historically as the triangular trade—operating between Europe, Africa, and the Americas from the 16th to 19th centuries. Depictions of the triangular trade of enslaved people, sugar, and rum on maps show a third corner touching North America but the directional arrow to North America stereotypically does not actually reach Canada…. Yet, research including Dalhousie and King’s reports show that our own histories and current experiences are closely tied to the Atlantic slave trade.”
What do the organizers hope to achieve through the conference?
Dalhousie Professor Isaac Saney wants to see the conference “spur more research” into the enslavement of people of African descent in Nova Scotia and Canada.
“Hopefully [the conference] will also raise awareness of how the legacy of slavery—its continuities—have shaped and continue in many ways to impact deleteriously, the long-established Black communities that exist here, and also how it impacts indirectly on communities of new arrivals of people of African descent.”
For Grosse, the conference marks “a starting point.”
“I think that it will be a launching pad in the region for further discovery, further research and further events, activities and programs to shine a light on the business of slavery and the effects that it’s had on a community and how slavery contributed to the economic wealth and growth of our country.”
Lahey says one important outcome of the conference for King’s will be to highlight the findings of its 2020 report, King’s & Slavery: A Scholarly Inquiry.
“Two of the panels, Institutions and Communities on October 19, and Loyalists and Enslavement at King’s College, Nova Scotia on October 20 will provide an important opportunity for scholars who worked on King’s inquiry examining its own historic connections to the slave trade to share the information their research brought to light, some of which derives from King’s historic connections to Columbia University in New York.”
Lahey says the conference should lead to “a deepening of our determination and commitment … to ensure that higher education is available on equitable terms to everyone, including the members of the African Nova Scotia community and other people of African descent.”
Why is it important for King’s, Dalhousie and the Black Cultural Centre to host the conference?
Grosse views the conference as a “turning point” for BCCNS.
“I think this is an example of how communities and educational institutions can work together and I’m encouraged by the fact that this partnership exists because I am confident that this partnership will mean further connections in the future on other aspects and other ways in which community can be embellished and work forward in a positive light.
“You know I think that, at the end of it, we have to be able to tackle things through a process of allyship,” he adds, “we can’t do it alone.”
King’s applied for hosting rights to the conference as a “first response” to the findings of its scholarly inquiry into its historical connections to slavery, explains Lahey. “[The conference is] part of the deliberations and conversations, that need to go on about what we should be doing in light of the findings of our scholarly inquiry…”
Saney points to the fact that Dalhousie recently established an undergraduate degree in Black and African Diaspora Studies, the first such program in Canada. “I think this demonstrates Dalhousie’s further commitment and continuing leading role in looking at the Black experience in Canada and establishing the important historical stages in that development as well.”
Rajack-Talley says Dalhousie’s involvement is “yet another concrete example of a colonial-founded institution trying to transform itself.”
“At the same time, we acknowledge that we have more to do to redress a 200-year-old colonial structure. While the pace, intensity, range, and depth of our efforts may not be where many of us want, two things for certain, we are making progress and we are not turning back.”
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