The #9 bus picks up passengers in the part of Halifax formerly known as Richmond, near what once was Africville, and drives along Barrington Street towards downtown. On the way it passes the Irving Shipyards and a navy base. Across the harbour, on the Dartmouth waterfront there are three huge red and white striped smoke stacks of a gas burning power plant and near the harbour’s mouth sits the borg-like maze of pipes which is an oil-refinery. Each morning when I take that bus to work downtown I’m conscious that everything which is wrong with the world is present right here in little old Halifax.
The military-industrial complex occupies the majority of Halifax’s waterfront. Side by side they sit: the navy who, under Stephan Harper’s command, have awarded a huge contract to their neighbour Irving Shipyard to build fleets of warships. It was largely through the growth of these industries that the black community which had been established here two hundred years ago was forced to move into ghetto housing while their homes were torn down and paved over.
Recently I stumbled on “The Africville Relocation Report” by Donald H. Clairmont and Dennis W. Mcgill in the Halifax North Memorial Public Library and spent a couple afternoons reading it, learning a lot about how the decision was made to appropriate that land. The situation looked like this: the north end of Halifax near the Bedford Basin had been set aside for everything which the ‘fathers of Halifax’ did not want in their neighborhoods: a garbage dump, a prison, and a hospital for infectious diseases. Though a black community had been there almost since the time when British soldiers had built a fort here in 1749 and gradually extended a city around this military outpost, city council had done nothing to provide services for them from that time till 1962 –when council began to seriously debate what to do about ‘the slums by the dump,’ as a Halifax counsellor referred to what former residents emphatically remember as a thriving and loving community. In the late fifties there had been talk of needing to appropriate more land along the harbour and basin for industrial purposes –building warships and another shipping port.
Though the Africville Relocation Report makes it clear that council already had eyes on Africville to open the land to industrial usage, connect roads, and extend the city’s urban plan, much of the debate in council between 1962-64 was framed altruistically as being concerned for what was best for the residents of Africville. Members of council argued that since most of the houses were in poor condition; since there was no sewage, running water, or electricity; since there was a network of paths between houses rather than a grid of streets; and since many of the claims of property ownership were unclear and problematic, that it would be best for the residents to be moved to a new location instead of providing basic services to those citizens in their chosen homes. Africville residents themselves surely did not want to move. They just wanted warm homes, clean water, to be able to sing in their own church and swim at their own beach.
Now, two hundred years after the British promised American slaves that they could be free on their own land if they fought in the War of 1812 –which was when many of the ancestors of Nova Scotian black people settled here, Halifax’s black community is again being slighted by Halifax Regional Council. A school which was built to educate the uprooted children of Africville near the ghetto they were forced into has been closed and sold to a developer –after three community groups, the North End Community Health Clinic, the Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre and the Richard Preston Centre for Excellence, appealed the sale saying that it was in violation of one of council’s own policy which says that community groups should be given opportunity to propose a use for abandoned schools before they are offered up for sale. In an article published this morning, Tim Bousquet clearly outlined the situation. It is unbelievable to me that council would rather change their own rules, which they voted to do two days ago, rather than listen to the people they claim to represent. This is not what democracy looks like.
If it is alright for city council to whimsically change their rules, why can’t Haligonians get them to change more about the way the local political system functions so that citizens can play a part in deciding what is to happen, or at least so that council is accountable for breaches of their own policies?