Afua Cooper Transcript

AFUA COOPER: Greetings to all the audience members and to my fellow presenters. I am very happy to be a part of this program. Thanks to Joanna and her team for inviting me.

As I was preparing for this presentation, two things occurred in the past 48 hours, and that is...The first thing is, two weeks ago I did a series of short recordings with CBC National. In fact, some of you may have seen it. CBC National is doing, or is in the process of, presenting to the public a series of videos on apology to the Black community by the federal government.

The apology isn't happening; it's something that we want, and so they're looking at that issue with the members of the Black community asking the federal government to apologize for slavery, for the enslavement of Africans in Canada. That's the first thing. The second thing that this morning showed up in my newsfeed — and I wasn't aware of this particular gesture, but I knew that Laura Trevelyan, who some of you may have seen her on CBC — not CBC, sorry, BBC — she's a presenter with the BBC.

That she investigated her family's background and they were big slave traders, or slave holders rather, on the island of Grenada in the West Indies. They owned over a thousand enslaved Africans, and this week she made a reparative gesture to the people of Grenada through the University of the West Indies: a gift, one could call it, of £100,000.

And she and a relative stood before the people of Grenada this week and apologized for their family members, their ancestors, having enslaved people, having slaves, and benefiting from that phenomenon. So I thought, the sign of, you know, as Bob Marley would say, “a natural mystic flowing through the air,” that there are these synergies happening at the same time with respect to the enslavement of Black people in this hemisphere and this idea about apology — this idea for reparative justice.

So I, as was described in my bio, I teach, I work on Black History and a field that I look at, that I'm working in at the moment, is that of slavery — well I shouldn't say at the moment; I've been doing it for the past 25 years — is that of slavery, the enslavement of Black people in Canada. And so I excavate this work, and I just want to say it's not as if the documents or evidence for this issue is dead and we have no evidence, they're not available. No, there are.

There are tonnes of documents in various archives across this country, and also international archives in the United States, in France, in Great Britain, and elsewhere. So slave holders in Canada, they left documents, they left evidence rather, of their slave holding in their wills, in newspaper ads as they sought to buy and sell slaves, or when enslaved people ran away from the homes of these people. There's evidence of slave holdings in government records.

The woman I worked on, and I wrote a book, The Hanging of Angelique, who was accused of setting a fire that burned down most of the merchants' quarters in Montreal. There are reams and reams and reams of documents about her in our in our archives here in Canada and also in the colonial archives in France. The government officials wrote about it, they sent the copies of the documents to France, the church wrote about it, so we have all these documents.

Now why is it that most Canadians don't know about the enslavement of Black people in Canada? So with that in mind, I look at the questions that were posed by, you know, the initiators of this project. How can we initiate respectful and productive conversations around hard histories? And I, one, I sort of cheekily wrote a response to that question.

I said "don't tell me that slavery was mild," because one of the responses that I typically get when people say, okay, okay, Afua, slavery did happen in Canada. Yes, yes, we believe you, but it was mild. And I say to them, "well have you ever been enslaved? Have you ever had any of your children enslaved? Have you ever had the the female members of your family raped and sexually violated?"

And I said that situation, that phenomenon, happened all across the Americas including Canada. So do not tell me that it was mild, because somehow we did not have plantations, as you know, in the American South or in the West Indies. So the first thing that we have to do in having these hard conversations, difficult conversations, is to just accept the fact and sit with it for a while and don't try to distance yourself from it by saying, okay, it wasn't as bad, okay, you know you're living a good life in Canada, that sort of thing.

We have to acknowledge that it happened. And these sculptures, you know, really graphically illustrates this phenomenon, or this experience, of the Middle Passage, called the slave trade, when people were taken from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean, which is called the Middle Passage in the literature, to this part of the world. Chained hands, feet, neck, Black people were seen as chattel, were seen as property, were cast out of humanity.

In fact, one of the justifications for the slave trade was that Black people were sub-human, not human. And here's a Code Noir, which is a French Metropolitan legal code that regulated the slave trade as France became a huge Empire. And all these countries: France, Britain, United States, even Scandinavia, people don't think of Scandinavia as a slave holding power, really got their start in the world economy in a major way from the slave trade.

So here's the Code Noir, and in the Code Noir, Louis XIV who promulgated the Code Noir, he said, you know, Black people are chattel, they're property, they can be moved about like a horse or a cow or whatever it is. So they're taking away the humanity of Africans. Queen Elizabeth of England, the slave trading Queen. She sends three slave ships to the west coast of Africa with her favourite pirate, Sir Francis Drake, and this is how the British government got its start in the slave trade.

In fact it was the royalty that initiated this trade. When the Royal African Company was established, it was established by the Duke of York and his brother. Yes, so Canada was both a colony of France and Britain, and in both instances, or under both colonial regimes, slave holding was a part of it. In fact, Black people in Canada have been enslaved longer than we have been free.

And here's Aimé Césaire here talking about the forgetting machine. And part of the reason why we don't know about the institution of slavery in Canada is this forgetting machine, and Aimé Césaire, who was a Martinique theorist, he talks about this, he talks about power, this question of power.

So once slavery ended in the British Empire and Canada became British 1760, and slavery was abolished in 1834, the forgetting machine was put in place. After all, you're not talking about human beings. And so by the time you had 1834 and slavery was abolished and people began to think in a more enlightened way, there is this feeling that slavery was part of an ignorable past, and no one wanted to remember it.

Because after all, you're talking about Black people. Now let's look at this slide. I put this slide here because it it broke my heart. And this is coming from Quebec, 6 March 1787, Quebec City. "Ran away from the subscribers between the hours of seven and eight yesterday evening, a Negro wench named Bett, about 18 years old, middle stature, speaks English, French, and German languages well..." and it describes what she had on when she fled.

I want to bring your attention to this line here: "was big with child and within a few days of her time. Whoever will apprehend said Negress and secure her return shall be paid a reward of twenty dollars." And the owners are Johnston and Purss; they were merchants in Quebec City.

Now what, why would a woman big with child, about to give birth, why would she run away in the middle of winter? She ran away. She was running away from something. She was enslaved. But I'm thinking maybe it wasn't the institution so much that she was running away from — something had happened because she was heavy with child, and Bett must have known that she probably wouldn't have gotten very far in her condition unless she had help — someone probably waiting with a boat, ferry her away, et cetera, et cetera.

But this broke my heart. She's 18. She's enslaved. Who is the father of her child? Is an enslaver the father of her child? We don't know, but here Johnson and Purss is advertising in the Quebec Gazette for this woman who is heavy with child and could give birth at any time. Let's keep going.

And so these are, you know, the evidences. These pieces of evidence of enslavement in Canada. "To be sold, a young healthy Negro woman." Here, Ruth has run away. "A Negro man named away from the subscriber," Montreal, 24th August 1781. And we'll keep going.

James McGill who endowed McGill University — the McGill College and became McGill University — is selling enslaved people here: for £100 Quebec, Negro man Caesar, and Negro woman, Flora. So if you see that the enslavers, people like McGill and Solomon Levi, they're all part, they're all part of this cohort of people.

And it wasn't just merchants. You had innkeepers, you had farmers, in all of the five older provinces: Lower Canada, Upper Canada, P.E.I., New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and even Newfoundland that was its own independent colony. Let's keep going. And here enslavement on display, painted. New Brunswick, a slave flight; several people have escaped from slavery and they are advertised for in a local newspaper. We'll just keep going, thank you.

Here's another slide that breaks my heart. "Buried, Diana Bastian, a Negro girl belonging to Abraham Cuyler, in the 15th year of her age." This is from St. George's Anglican Church. She was deluded and ruined — and that's euphemism for rape — she was deluded and ruined at government house by George More, esquire, an evil officer to whom she was pregnant with twins and delivered of but one of them."

And Diana Bastian went to the Justice of Peace in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Sydney, and she asked for help. It turns out that the Justice of Peace is the brother of the man who raped her, and so the elite of Sydney "circle the wagon," so to speak, and protected George More, denied Diana Bastian any help, and she died in childbirth.

And someone was outraged enough, and I believe it was the reverend of the church, Ranna Cossitt, who was known as a radical, who left us this piece of evidence in the church record book of the St. George's Anglican Church. 1792, Diana Bastian young enslaved girl died giving birth. She was raped by George More who was a member of the legislature in Cape Breton.

Cape Breton was its own independent colony then. So, how can we — this is just the manuscript form of it — how can we empower audiences to confront these legacies of slavery, or to look at slavery. Well one of the things that just happened, a number of things, I talked about the synergies, is this time that was recently issued by Canada Post of Chloe Cooley.

Chloe Cooley was an enslaved woman in Queenston, or we'll just call it Niagara-on-the-Lake, that's where she was taken by her enslaver Adam Vrooman, tied up, thrown in a boat, here is a slide for it, one of the slides, and rode across the river, the Niagara River into New York state where she was sold. And, you know, the stamp, it's really, really a great way of telling the story, once if we're in a classroom and we present this stamp, we discuss this time, what's about, who is Chloe Cooley, what did she do?

She screamed violently and made resistance, and the new governor of the province at the time, John Graves Simcoe, wanted to abolish slavery, but there were so many slaveholders in this legislature that he couldn't. So what he did was to ban the importation of new slaves coming into the province.

Didn't help Chloe Cooley because she was sold away, didn't help the enslaved people who were already in the province, but new people. If enslaved people in the American South or the Bahamas heard that if you came to Canada you could be free, then that was an opportunity for them, and that was how the Underground Railroad started. Because Upper Canada became free soil for foreign slaves, not for the slaves who were already there.

So through plaquing, and this plaque we did around 2009, I myself was doing the bicentennial work for the province of Ontario, and I recommended that Chloe Cooley be plaqued. Her plaque is there on the Niagara Parkway and there's a stamp, and Historica Canada did recently a little video about the Chloe Cooley incident. So, this is one of the ways we can...the exhibits, there are several exhibits around, not necessarily on slavery, and the slave trade, their exhibits on Black History.

And I think part of the reason why the government of Canada has been refusing, and it doesn't matter which government, no, we have a liberal government in power, but when the conservatives...We've been asking for an apology for the past 25 years. Nothing has happened in that regard.

So we continue to do the work, we continue to publish, to teach, to make podcasts, I just did a podcast with Parks Canada on slavery in the Cape Breton region, and that's all we can do because we realize that, with respect to power, the power is weighed in terms of the balance, it's weighed on the side of white people. It's weighed on the side of powerful white people. And one of the questions we ask about — that the presenter or the initiators of this even ask about — is marginalized community.

The Black community is relatively, is a marginalized community. And we understand that we don't wield the kind of power that is necessary sometimes to get an apology, or to get a museum of slavery. We've been asking for that for the past 40 years.

It's interesting that in Washington, D.C., the Museum of African American History was open about four or five years ago, but it took a hundred — more than a hundred years — because after the American Civil War, Black veterans who fought in that war, asked for or proposed that a record of Black history in the United States in terms of, you know, a material record in terms of having a museum be established. So it took over 150 years for that to happen.

Well I hope it doesn't take that long for us to get an apology or for a museum of slavery to be established in Canada. As I said in terms of best practices, we continue to teach, we continue to provide resources, articles, books, podcasts, videos. To build the confidence, to build the confidence of the Black community, and not only to show the enslavement and the degradation of it, but also the resistance.

So people like Peggy Pompadour who is here, she constantly ran away from her enslavers in Toronto — Peter Russell, former administrator of the province — constantly ran away. She resisted. Chloe Cooley, Marie-Joseph Angélique, so when we teach this history of resistance, the history of slavery is about oppression but it's also interwoven with this phenomenon of resistance. It's always there and you build confidence.

Now if we fast forward to the legacies, because Black people were cast out of humanity and a psychological intervention did not happen to the white community in 1834 when slavery ended. They still thought of Black people in the same way.

So here, the Ontario Human Rights Commission is telling us that Black people are twenty times as likely to be shot dead even though they make up eight percent of, in this case, Toronto's population. We see Black people being used, police dogs been used on us, can you imagine those dogs, those big German Shepherd dogs, that are used to track slaves during the period slavery. Today in 2022-2023, those dogs are used on us. Why is that?

Why is that? I want to ask that question. We saw how the gentleman in Calgary died last year. They used a police dog on him, the Sudanese refugee. He died. I couldn't get out of my bed for a week. I'm thinking, are we living in the Twilight Zone?

So these are some of the things we do, some of the initiatives we engage in to bring this history to life and to humanize, to humanize and to re-dignify, Black people. Yes, here the United Nations is also calling on the Government of Canada to apologize for slavery and to do right by the Black community. Thank you very much.