I wanted to share this Foreword to the book The Hanging of Angelique, written by George Elliot Clarke. I only recently discovered this book, and the summary in the beginning perfectly captures everything I’ve been saying, only with more eloquence than my rantings.
I find Canada worse than the United States in the same way I find a corrupt police officer worse than a criminal: it is the complete betrayal of trust based on false imagery and misrepresentation; the total base hypocrisy which is abominable and beyond contempt.
So, to quote:
“As I WRITE THIS FOREWORD, Mme. Michaelle Jean, born in Haiti in 1957 and a resident of Montreal, Quebec, since 1968, is being sworn in as Her Excellency, the governor general of Canada, the nation’s twenty-seventh head of state. Mme. Jean is, culturally, Haitian-Quebecoise-French; historically, she is like the vast majority of Black people in the western hemisphere– a descendant of African slaves. While performing her viceregal duties, this savvy intellectual– a socially oriented broadcast journalist by trade, a student of Haitian and Quebecois history, and a speaker of five languages– may reflect on the irony that she is queen in all but name of a society, Canada, that was established just as Haiti was, on the economic basis of African servitude. Not surprisingly, European-Canadian commentators on Mme. Jean’s ascension have noted that she is a “descendant of Hatian slaves” and some have applauded Canada’s blindness concerning “race” and “gender”– that is to say, it’s supposed liberality– in selecting a Black woman for the post of head of state and commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces.
But forgotten (in fact, repressed) amid all the analyses of Mme. Jean’s elevation is Canada’s own practice of slavery, Aboriginal and African, its emancipation of slaves only by imperial fiat (from London), and its continued conjoining of labour needs and “race” in its immigration practices. Forgotten too, are the two salient anniversaries that 2005 represents for African Canadians: the arrival of the first African person in Canada, namely, Mathieu de Coste, in 1605; and the relaxation of anti-Black immigration laws with the 1955 promulgation of the West Indian Domestic Scheme.
The avoidance of Canada’s sorry history of slavery and racism is natural. It is how Canadians prefer to understand themselves: we are a nation of good, Nordic, “pure”, mainly White folks, as opposed to the lawless, hot-tempered, impure, mongrel Americans, with their messy history of slavery, civil war, segregation, assassinations, lynchings, riots, and constant social turmoil. Key to this propaganda–and that is what it is– is the Manichaean portrayal of two nations: Canada, the land of “Peace, Order, and Good Government,” of evolution within the traditional constraints of monarchy and authority, where racism was not and is not tolerated, versus the United States of America, the land of guns, cockroaches, and garbage, of criminal sedition confronted by aggressive policing (and jailing), where racism was and is the arbiter of class (im)mobility.
Indeed, in Canada, “race” and racism are concepts used to refight the American Revolution, to establish that the Yankee Revolt against the Crown was wrong, while Canada’s loyalty to the monarchy, heirarchy, and public order fostered a more harmonious and, ironically, rouge-tinted society.
But the price of this flattering self-portrait is public lying, falsified history, and self-destructive blindness. It means that we can forget about a Canadian-led expedition to the Congo in the 1880s, which resulted in Africans’ heads being cut off and stuck on fence posts– a scene that may have inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We can guiltlessly commemorate, with a single plaque, an entire Black community– Africville– which had been in existence for almost 150 years when, in 1962, the city of Halifax decided to relocate its citizens, razing and burying all signs of Africville’s former life. We can ignore the contributions of nineteenth-century Black settlers who cleared and tilled parts of this land until “official” settlers arrived from Ireland and England and claimed the title. Think, for instance, of Priceville, Ontario, where, in 1989, grave markers of the town’s first inhabitants turned up in a farmer’s field. Only then did the townspeople “discover” that the Black cemetery had been ploughed under, the Black presence buried and all but forgotten.
Our refusal to embrace the facts of our history means that we, as a people, can commit atrocities such as the one that occurred in Somalia in 1992, when “our boys,” part of a taxpayer-funded, elite paratrooper regiment, shot three Somalis and lynched one, a child. It means that we make liars out of our “coloured”– that is, “visible minority”– citizens, as our federal government did in 2003. In that year, when the United Nations released a report stating that Africans and Aboriginals suffer racism in Canada, the response of the Liberal government of Canada was that the UN was wrong…
… Unlike American literature and society, in which rebels, Black and White, are celebrated, canonized with folk songs, and given “star billing,” even if they were silenced by officially sanctioned bullets or state executions, Canadian literature boasts very, very few such figures. The Manitoban mystic Louis Riel, hanged for insurrection in 1885, is one vaunted rebel, especially for Metis and francophones. In African-Canadian circles, no such celebrity exists; our “criminals” are seldom martyrs…
… The reader will notice, no doubt, that, while I claim that Mme. Angelique is the best-known African-Canadian slave, she appears in only a handful of texts (excluding histories). Here we address the nub of the problem that Dr. Cooper’s research challenges: the repression of the history of Canadian slavery necessitates the oblivion of actors such as Mme. Angelique. The recovery of that history mandates the remembering of representative and extraordinary slaves…
Some may object that, because colonial Canadian slavery was not as extensive as the Southern U.S. version, Dr. Cooper’s research is academic and inconsequential. However, we must recognize that slavery was practiced in a solid third of what is now Canada– in Upper Canada (Ontario), New France (Quebec), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia; that it numbered in thousands of slaves (with the greatest number in New France), held “legally” under various colonial regimes and traded globally; that it lasted for more than two hundred years; and that it ended only because it was not vital to the boreal economy.
As historian James Walker has argued, because colonial Canada held African slaves, its society fostered anti-Black racism-Negrophobia that persists in Canada today. Furthermore, because slavery was all about extracting free–and hard– labour from understandably recalcitrant persons, it sanctioned torture, even in Canada. Thus, one reads that a Loyalist kept his slaves chained to his basement walls in Fredericton, New Brunswick; or that a Nova Scotian bachelor minister owned two teenage female slaves, thus exciting public controversy; or that a Nova Scotian mistress bludgeoned a boy slave to death with a hammer; or that “a slave of Judge Upham” was hanged, on flimsy grounds, for the murder of a White woman in New Brunswick; or that Jean-Baptiste Thomas was hanged in the Montreal market, for theft, in the summer of 1735 (just a year after Mme. Angelique was executed); or that Josiah Cutten was hanged, in Ontario, in 1789, but was likened to animals that “go about at Night for their prey”. Ah, the records of Canadian slavery are every bit as vicious as those we Canadians know so much better– those of the Great Republic…
… “Four hundred years after the first African landed on Canadian shores (in Nova Scotia), 270 years after the grisly execution of Mme. Angelique, 170 years after the British Empire abolished slavery in Canada, and 50 years after Blacks were once again permitted to immigrate to Canada (specifically, from the Caribbean), one watches a brilliant irony unfold: the Jamaican-Canadian Dr. Cooper, a native of a society of slave revolts, presents her governor general, the Haitian-Canadian Mme. Jean, a native of a country established in rebellion and revolution, with a document about another Black woman, who was a martyr for liberty in colonial Canada.”
I now finish off with a quote from Afua Cooper in her Preface:
“The story of Angelique provides an opportunity for us to reclaim a hidden past. Since much of the Black past has been deliberately buried, covered over, and demolished, it is our task to unearth, uncover and piece it together again. This we are called to do, because the dead speak to us.“