The financial settlement won by Canada’s First Nations justifies reparations for the enslavement of Africans

By Carlton Joseph

Carlton Joseph

The recent $40 billion settlement between the Canadian government and First Nation groups over systemic underfunding of child welfare services is the largest in Canadian history, and although everyone acknowledges that no amount of money can reverse the harms experienced by the children, we must applaud the government’s decision.

Unfortunately, we must also recognize that the government did not initiate the agreement, and that lawsuits brought against the government by First Nation leaders and advocates were the catalysts in bringing the government to its senses.  A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal award of $40,000 to children who had been removed from their families through the Indigenous child welfare system, and the government losing the appeal of that decision, made the government decide to enter formal negotiations rather than take the tribunal’s decision to the Supreme Court.

First Nations leaders and advocates welcomed the settlement but reports indicate that they are cautiously optimistic, some indicating that past promises didn’t materialize but they are patient and won’t rest until the money is in place.  They should be cautious because this agreement is non-binding and final settlement agreements will be negotiated in the coming months.  The Caribbean community hope that negotiations are successfully concluded this year.

This settlement, assuming it will be finalized, should be instructive to Indigenous peoples in North and South America, and to black people in the US, the Caribbean and Latin America.  Legal suits, truth and reconciliation commissions, evidentiary hearings, and constant public pressure is necessary to force governments to come to the table and resolve these long-standing reparation issues.

Interestingly, paying reparations is not a new phenomenon, especially when it involves paying slave owners.  Haiti declared Independence from France in 1804 and was forced to pay 150 million francs over 122 years to compensate former slave owners for the loss of slaves (property).  The British government paid reparations totaling £20 million to slave owners when it abolished slavery in 1833.  In 1862 the United States paid $930,000 in reparations to slave owners for their loss of property (slaves).  

Yes, black human beings were considered property, and being defined as property is more than likely the real reason why reparations to black people is not considered.  We have to demand that they legally acknowledge that we were never property, and every notation describing black people as property must be erased from all historical documents.

Similar examples of reparations going to individual slave owners can be found in the records of countries including Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, as well as Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, VenezuelaPeru and Brazil.

However, the issue of America paying reparations to black people is met with resistance. The main objections are (1) that no one currently living is responsible for righting the wrongs committed by long dead slave owners; (2) that the idea of reparations is demeaning to African Americans and would further divide the country along race lines; (3) reparations would be too expensive.  The objections to paying indigenous people is that endemic warfare is the nature of man, there is not a nation which has not conquered or been conquered.

I reject the idea that warfare is the nature of man and conquest or domination of one group over another is normal, because it assumes that man is barbarous by nature, that war is perpetual and peaceful coexistence is unobtainable. Worst, it implies that a large country can today conquer a small country and impose slavery or any other form of government it wants on the conquered people.  If this is the case there is absolutely no need for a United Nations (UN), or for small countries to trust large powerful countries.

The idea that no one currently living is responsible for righting the wrongs committed by slaveholders is untenable, because Haiti paid reparations to France long after the original enslavers were dead.  That reparation is demeaning and will divide the country along race lines insults the intelligence of black people and ignores history.  That reparation is too expensive without determining the cost to be paid is ridiculous.  If it was possible to compute reparations to slave owners, it is possible to determine the cost of reparations to descendants of slaves.

In fact, the French government conducted genealogical research to determine eligible slave owner recipients.  The US could use 1860 Census records, local archives and genealogical research to compute reparations for the descendants of enslaved black Americans. 

President Abraham Lincoln attempted to address reparations for slavery when his administration authorized 400,000 acres of land to be divided into forty-acre plots and given to newly freed slaves; after his assassination the order was rescinded and the land was returned to slaveholders.

President Obama when asked about reparations said that reparations are justified but the politics of white resistance and resentment of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action made the prospect of proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program is political non-starter and potentially counterproductive. 

This is the problem with black politicians, they do not want to upset white people, even when they are doing the right thing.  In the first two years of Obama’s administration, he dismissed Universal Health Care as unachievable because republicans and white people would not support it, he settled for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) trying to get their support.  He did not get one republican vote; the people did not get universal health care; and republicans gutted the ACA after he left office.

In the US congress, a slavery reparations bill proposed in 1989 finally made it out of committee last year and is now in the House and Senate, but getting enough lawmakers to support it will be difficult.  Politico reports that 60 percent of Democrats support the formation of a committee to study reparations while 74 percent of Republicans oppose it. 

In the Caribbean, the Caricom Reparations Commission (CRC) has been established to develop an ethical and legal case for the payment of reparations by governments of all former colonial powers.

America and former colonial powers must acknowledge their role in keeping the countries they dominated and controlled, impoverished and underdeveloped. America must also acknowledge that her military is forty percent minority, and for that force to be potent it must be cohesive, and racism must end in the general community. 

For America to preserve its notion of national interests and international order in the wake of COVID-19, it has to realize that impoverishing the world and its own citizens, particularly black and brown citizens is counter- productive and detrimental to its goal as global leader. Paying reparations is one way to prove that she is serious about addressing inequality and systemic racism in the society, and be in a position to maintain or share global leadership.

(Trinidad-born Carlton Joseph who lives in Washington DC, is a close observer of political developments in the United States.)