The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News

The tragedy of Africville

by Fred McMahon


The media in Halifax has been full of stories about the premiere of a new play on Africville, once the largest black community in Canada. In the 1960s, community property was expropriated and residents evicted from homes that had been in families for generations. Those who knew Africville pine for the community. Their children dream of the community they never knew.

Today’s tragedy is that Canadians have no more rights today than Africville residents did. As other nations strengthened civil rights, our governments refuse Canadians the rights which would have enabled Africville residents to stop government bulldozers.

Canada’s charter of Rights and Freedoms was explicitly designed to exclude property rights. As we’ll see, Canadian governments continue to use this gap to attack the politically weak and suppress free expression.

Government can expropriate anyone’s property, anytime, for any reason – the way people live, the language on a sign, political views, or skin colour. Well, maybe not skin colour. The Charter bars explicit prejudice. But then Africville was never officially about race.

A whack of left-wing social activists descended on Halifax to say they didn’t like the way Africville residents lived. Government knew how people should live. Put the residents in government-run housing, said the activists.

Now there’s a legal reason for expropriation even today. No constitutional requirement for compensation either, today or back then. Social activists provided happy cover for plans to build a dump, bridge and container pier in the area.

Political philosophers from the get-go understood property rights are an integral part of liberty. Thus came the idea: “A man’s home is his castle.”

A person whose property can be stolen by government for any capricious reason has no political liberty. An attack on property is the first order for tyrants. Hitler first went after Jewish property, leaving the community dispirited, weak and defenseless. Same thing with German dissidents. When everyone is sufficiently cowed, the horrors begin.

Stalin built the perfect soviet society by attacking property. Millions of peasants died protecting property, to which they had only obtained title in the previous century when serfdom was abolished. The great landowners had easily cowed peasants who had no right to their land. Stalin knew the lesson. Starvation followed.

None of this can happen in Canada, you say. Africville happened. The Davis Inlet tragedy happened. Government officials decided they knew where the Innu should live, never mind what the Innu thought. Remember resettlement of people from Newfoundland outports. All this is recent history.

Quebec attacks property to support its suppression of English signs. Quebec, in effect, can expropriate any business which displays English signs. The theft of your ability to support your family is more threatening than a prison term, and less outrageous to the public.

When Ottawa decided to use the fishery as a political net to harvest votes in Atlantic Canada regardless of the environmental and economic costs, it didn’t jail anyone who spoke out against the perversities. It threatened property.

I was a fisheries reporter at the time. Everyday I heard something like: “I’d love to tell you what’s going on but if I criticize fisheries management, Ottawa’ll find some way to cut my catch or declare some of my equipment illegal or find new fees for me to pay.” Ottawa would degrade the value of someone’s property to keep them quiet.

Lack of property rights gives government a tool to suppress speech, attack the politically unpopular, and do good, even to people who don’t want good done unto them. It’s all happened in recent times in Canada.

We have some laws about expropriation, but they can be overturned by the majority in a second. Unpopular groups need protection against majority power.

The dangerous attitude still thrives in Canada that social planners–whether Stalin’s minions promoting the joy of collective farming or 1960s activists promoting the joys of government housing–know how you ought to live.

Maude Barlow’s Council of Canadians believes government–through subsidies, taxes, import bans and censorship of the airwaves–should tell Canadians what to read and watch. This nationalist group dangerously confuses sovereignty with government power. The Council battles anything that limits government power, whether the Charter of Rights, which prevents outright racism, or the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or NAFTA.

“Over the years,” the council states, “our national sovereignty has been diminished first by the Charter of Rights, then the FTA and NAFTA but they all pale beside the MAI.”

That’s false. The Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment is a minor treaty that would merely limit uncompensated expropriation and require similar treatment for foreign and domestic firms. The charter and trade agreements have a much larger impact.

The Council hates the MAI because it gives foreign firms some protection from arbitrary government expropriation. That’s inadequate. All Canadians should have that protection. Africville could happen again.