Halifax Inks Historic Africville Agreement



Donalee Moulton for The Lawyers Weekly

June 11, 2010

It has been almost 50 years since Africville, a predominantly African Nova Scotian community in north-end Halifax, was razed to the ground by the city. It's been almost 15 years since the Africville Genealogy Society sued the city over related legal issues. It's been less than five months since an historic compensation agreement was inked between the two groups.

The ink was not even dry on that agreement before protesters challenged its authority.

The negotiated settlement, which includes $3 million toward the reconstruction of the Seaview United Baptist Church to serve as an Africville memorial, is designed to honour the past, take action in the present, and plan for community-based improvements for the future, according to the city.

That agreement, Halifax Regional Municipality Mayor Peter Kelly told The Lawyers Weekly in an interview, "is unprecedented. It's the first time I'm aware of that such a settlement has been put in place...in Canada."

That settlement also includes a public apology, which the mayor made earlier this year. "It is an acknowledgement of a process that certainly wouldn't be tolerated today. It's apologizing for that and trying to find recourse moving forward," Kelly said.

Africville stood on the shores of the renowned Bedford Basin for 150 years before its homes and the Seaview United Baptist Church were uprooted by the Halifax municipal government as part of an "urban renewal" initiative that saw the first properties purchased in 1964. Approximately 400 residents were subsequently relocated throughout the city.

In 1996, the former land where the community once stood was designated a national historic landmark. That same year, the Africville Genealogy Society, which represents former residents and their descendents, sued the city for several long-standing issues, including its failure to provide an educational trust fund as approved by council two years earlier and its failure to convey 2.5 acres for construction of a memorial church.

The compensation package, the result of a tripartite committee struck in 2005 with representation from the three levels of government and the Africville Genealogy Society, addressed those issues. It calls for the transfer of land for the church replica and interpretive centre; $3 million in financial support for capital construction and endowment; an employment contract for maintenance of Seaview Park; renaming of Seaview Park to Africville; and establishment of an African Nova Scotian Affairs function within municipal government.

What the agreement does not do - and was never intended to do - is provide money to the former residents and descendants of Africville, said Kelly. "There is no individual compensation. It's collective."

The agreement is now apparently under dispute. At the city council meeting that ratified the redress package, an opponent stepped forward contending the agreement was not legal. Denise Allen, who represents a group of people with ties to the Africville community, told reporters that the genealogy society, founded in 1983 by three former residents to reunite one-time members of the community, is not properly constituted to represent these former residents and their descendants.

In an article she wrote for a local publication, Allen noted that, "The compensation settlement does not come close to making up for what was stolen from the people of Africville. As a matter of fact, the issue of Africville doesn't compare to the recreation needs of the residents of Clayton Park who will receive a $10 million soccer field, the cost of which is $7 million more that the cost of the token gestures offered to the people of Africville."

Allen's group is said to be considering an injunction. In the meantime, the compensation agreement will move forward - following the advice of the city's legal counsel.

The Africville Genealogy Society seems to be doing the same. "This announcement with its heartfelt apology is welcomed by the people of Africville," Society President Irvine Carvery said in a release when the deal was ratified. "Today as we open the door to tomorrow, we do it on the sacrifices and struggles of those who came before us. This is truly a new beginning for Africville."

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