On October 9, the Black Students’ Association (BSA) held a panel discussion at Hart House on the controversial subject of reparations for slavery. The panel discussion was part of Xpression Against Oppression Week, the series of events coordinated by the Students’ Administrative Council.
The three panelists-Professor Gervan Fearon of York University, Akwatu Khenti, Director of the Center for Mental Health and Addiction, and Anita Bell, an American lawyer-addressed the issue from a variety of perspectives, including historical examples of reparations, legal efforts to seek reparations, and reparations as a tool in the broader effort to achieve Black liberation. The panel was moderated was BSA vice-president Kofi Hope.
The panelists started with statements to define their views on reparations, followed by Hope acting as devil’s advocate, posing questions critical of reparations. The event was attended by approximately forty people; most were from visible minorities.
The speakers varied considerably in their vision of reparations.
Fearon, a professor of economics at York University, put reparations into historical context, reminding the audience of the reparations that were enforced after both World Wars (including reparations to Jews and later, Israel) and efforts dating back to the 19th century to compensate for slavery in the United States.
Anita Bell, introduced as a “minister of the Gospel and lawyer” spoke about her efforts to launch a lawsuit against the US federal government. Her case revolves around the question of whether the US actually abolished slavery, and asserts that the US is in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention. She asked the audience to sign her petition to have her case heard at the International Court of Justice, since she has exhausted all legal instruments in the United States, all the way up to the Supreme Court in Belle & Belle v. FBI et al in 2003.
Khenti’s talk, on the other hand, stressed that reparations should be seen as one strategy among many in the struggle for Black liberation. He argued that money alone may not solve this major social problem since there are quite a number of wealthy African-Americans. Khenti argued that the suffering of those Africans transported across the Atlantic constitutes a crime against humanity. Adding some Canadian content to a panel generally focused on America, Khenti mentioned Québec’s Code Noir (enacted by Louis XIV in 1689 to regulate the treatment of slaves in French colonies) which, among other things, required slaves to become Roman Catholic.
The audience was mostly sympathetic to panelists’ arguments but several expressed the wish that the panel had addressed non-American concerns at greater length. One person asked why more attention was not being paid to Europe, particularly Britain and France, who both played a major role in the slave trade. Another asked if it would not be better to attack contemporary forms of economic slavery instead of seeking restitution for the past.
In an interview with The Varsity following the panel discussion, Bell talked some more about the issues that she raised in her talk. She fled to Canada in May 2003 to seek political asylum from the United States, but her refugee claim has yet to be heard by the federal government. She remarked on how long Canada has long served as a haven for US dissidents, dating back to draft dodgers in the 1960s, to those not wanting to serve in the current conflict in Iraq since 2003.