The Universities Studying Slavery—USS—conference is happening outside of the United States for the first time, and it’s happening in Halifax. From Wednesday Oct. 18 to Saturday Oct. 21, keynote speakers and panel sessions will take place at the Black Cultural Centre—BCC in Cherry Brook and the Halifax Marriott Harbourfront Hotel to consider the theme: “Slavery, Reparations and Education.”
Two Halifax universities—Dalhousie and King’s—partnered with the BCC to bring the conference to a city whose own history is inextricably linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the history of enslaved Black people.
The Coast will be covering each day of the conference as it unfolds.
Says the USS website, “Universities Studying Slavery—USS—is a consortium of over one hundred institutions of higher learning in the United States, Canada, Colombia, Scotland, Ireland, and England. These schools are focused on sharing best practices and guiding principles as they engage in truth-telling educational projects focused on human bondage and the legacies of racism in their histories.
“Member schools are all committed to research, acknowledgment, education, and atonement regarding institutional ties to the slave trade, to enslavement on campus or abroad, and to enduring racism in school history and practice.”
Dr. Isaac Saney is a Black Studies in Cuba specialist and tenured professor at Dalhousie University. Saney is the coordinator of Dal’s Black and African Diaspora Studies program—the first of its kind in Canada—and the chair of the organizing committee for this year's USS conference.
“Dalhousie was the first Canadian university to expose its links to slavery,” says Saney. “Then King's followed. There is this consortium of 50 to 60 universities in the United States called Universities Studying Slavery, which looked at their roots. And it seemed only logical that both universities should join. And so [King’s president Bill Lahey] thought, 'Why not have the first conference outside of the United States ever?' And he considered Halifax particularly because of Halifax's connection in Nova Scotia basically as the birthplace of Black history in a sense of the Black presence in Canada. And, of course, the fact that this history is often ignored; the existence of slavery is often ignored in Canadian historiography.”
Lord Dalhousie was committed to the enslavement of Black people. The namesake and original initial investor of the largest university in Halifax directly benefited from enslaved peoples. The university has recently gone public with this history. In 2019, Dalhousie University published their Report on Lord Dalhousie’s History of Slavery and Race, following the public presentation of the Report of the Findings of the Scholarly Panel to Examine Lord Dalhousie’s History on Slavery and Race, in 2018. Following Dal, the University of King’s College commissioned their own inquiry into King’s historical ties to the enslavement of Black people. Their findings were published in 2019, entitled King’s College, Nova Scotia: Direct Connections with Slavery.
“We learned that a substantial percentage of the funding that came to King’s over almost its first seven years came from wealth generated by enslaved Black people,” said King’s' president Bill Lahey. “And we also learned that many people associated with Kings—founders, presidents, parents, donors—were themselves associated with slavery. And that, in some ways, King’s represented the old worldview in which slavery was thought of as being a defensible practice.”
Lahey says it's clear that without the level of funding King’s received both directly and indirectly from 1789 to 1854 from the enslavement of Black people, King’s couldn’t have existed.
“Between 1789, and 1802. Kings received a provincial grant,” says Lahey. “That was based on a sugar tax. So that means 100% of that grant was derived from wealth generated by enslaved Black people, because the sugar was being produced in the Caribbean…. [And] from 1789 to 1854, our research shows that as much as 10% of the fees that were paid by students came from family wealth that was generated by enslaved Black people. So it's substantial.”
Both Lahey and Saney acknowledge barriers African Nova Scotian and Black students face when entering universities, and how these are related to histories of enslaved Black people in Nova Scotia. Lahey says just under 4% of its students self-report as being African Nova Scotian or Black. “And 10 years ago, it would have been a much smaller percentage.”
Lahey and Saney say hosting the USS conference is a part of redressing these inequities, along with building representation in faculty, programming, scholarship initiatives and research within the institution. “Achieving our aspirations [for King’s] to be a place that's truly welcoming and inclusive and supportive of Black students requires us to be ruthlessly honest about our history, and to show that we understand the accountability that comes from that history,’ says Lahey.
“It cannot be something that's swept under the table, and then still expect people who are living with a legacy of that history to be fully trustful of you when you say you are working to be a more inclusive and welcoming university for Black students, faculty and staff.
“The purpose of this conference and the growing relationship that we have with the Black Cultural Centre is to not just have a series of distinct initiatives, but to develop a comprehensive plan and strategy that declares our objectives, the things that we're going to do to achieve those objectives, and how we're going to be accountable for the progress.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 17, King’s and Dal announced a new academic appointment focused on the history of slavery in Canada, called the Centennial Carnegie Appointment in the History of Slavery in Canada. This appointment was announced in connection with the USS conference.
Says the release, this tenureship will be a part of the Department of History and “will advance important scholarship worldwide and contribute to the commitments both universities have made to redress historical exclusions and chart a course for a more inclusive and diverse future. The Appointment also forms part of the universities’ responses to urgent calls asking higher education to address anti-Black racism and ensure Black flourishing, by supporting models of ‘inclusive excellence.’ To that end, the two institutions have signed onto the Scarborough Charter on Anti-Black Racism and Black Inclusion in Canadian Higher Education: Principles, Actions, and Accountabilities.”
Says Saney: “The Scarborough Charter was signed by our 50 universities in Canada. It actually acknowledged the existence of anti-Black racism and how critical universities were particularly in the educational sphere in combating it, right? And so there were calls for a number of things around curriculum, around diversity of student bodies, diversity of faculty and so forth. So those are things that are important, right, and so on. And we just had at Dalhousie the announcement of a million dollar scholarship, the Senator Don Oliver Scholarship for African Nova Scotians. So I think those things are important as well.”
On the responsibility of universities to hold these conversations on slavery and race, Saney says “they have to render an account that this history existed. Then they have to redress it in terms of the courses that are being offered. And also in terms of the fact that Canada has, in many ways, lagged pathetically behind the United States. So the first Black Studies program, which came out of the Black liberation struggle in the 1960s—in fact, you know, fighting for the Black Studies program was part and parcel of the liberation struggle, a very critical part of it—was in 1969, in San Francisco State University.
“We've waited until 2023 to have our first Black Studies degree program in Canada. So I think it's important to understand that the Black experience is not trivial. It's not meaningless. It's not marginal. It's not incidental to the Canadian story. So it needs to be emphasized in terms of courses that are offered. And I would argue in building Black Studies programs as well, in order to also to address that when we look at discrimination, marginalization and so forth, that existed in the educational sphere.
“Universities have to also admit that Black students of African descent quite often found it very difficult, if not impossible, to enter institutions of higher learning. So I think it's also important to provide resources and scholarships and programs that reach out into the community and provide access for students. “
Sahey says he’s looking forward to the conference opening “a dialogue, a discussion, an expansion of the multifaceted way in which slavery and its consequences and legacy have continued to shape and impact in very negative ways people of African descent in the Americas. I think it will show a light on the fact that the enslavement of people of African descent and the discontents of the policies of segregation, discrimination, marginalization, disenfranchisement, that followed the many communities of people of African descent, that story unfolded here in Canada as much as it unfolded in the United States. Dr. Afua Cooper and others have referred to slavery as 'Canada's great secret.' So we're going to talk about slavery within the Canadian context, and particularly the Nova Scotian context, and show that it wasn't marginal. It wasn't, in a sense, accidental. It wasn't trivial. But it marked society in very profound ways, establishing a constellation of practices, conventions, ideas and values, that had a profound effect and a profound impact on the lived trajectories of people of African descent.”
Of the conference starting Wednesday, Oct. 18, Saney says: “What often happens with scholars is they find, you know, areas of convergence, areas of commonality where we can continue to research. Where I think it's going to be exciting is it's going to demonstrate how exciting and fertile, from an academic and research perspective, Black Canadian Studies is as a field, and particularly studying Nova Scotia. So I think people will be able to explore this history in much greater detail and richness. And to show that it's, you know, the complexity and meaningfulness of this history for understanding what is this thing we call Canada.”
Saney says all keynote speeches will be available to watch on Zoom.
“At the conference itself, reparations is gonna be a very big issue,” Saney says. “And what people need to understand about reparations is—there's a sort of stereotypical notion that reparations is about money.[But really] the reparations movement is about reconciling relations between those who have suffered because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and have endured the consequences and burden, right, of that legacy, reconciling society with them. But more importantly, transforming social relations within countries and between countries for the benefit of everybody. So reparations is not just about people of African descent; it's about envisioning a world in which everyone can realize their full human potential. And we can only do that by addressing these historical injustices. Because these historical injustices redound for the detriment of all of us.”
The conference will bring leading reparations specialists to Halifax, such as Hilary Beckles, who is the keynote and a leading scholar on reparations. “But we also have perhaps the leading political activist on reparations, at least in the Caribbean context: H.E. David Comissiong,” says Saney.
The other keynote speakers of the conference are: Dr. Sylvia D. Hamilton, renowned filmmaker, writer, journalist and artist, and University of King’s College's Inglis professor; Dr. Afua Cooper, distinguished historian and poet, and Killam research chair in Black and African Diaspora Studies at Dalhousie University; Dr. Harvey Amani Whitfield, leading historian of Black history and slavery in colonial Canada and a professor in Black North American History at the University of Calgary; and Dr. George Elliott Clarke, renowned poet and E.J. Pratt professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto.