The Africville Apology

Very near the moment Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly began reading an apology to former Africville residents, Kentville brothers Justin and Nathan Rehberg, aged nineteen and twenty, were in provincial court for a bail hearing in relation to charges of mischief, uttering threats, and public incitement of hatred. I doubt anyone needs to be told these charges concern a February 21, 2010 cross-burning in Newport, Nova Scotia, at the house of Shayne Howe and Michelle Lyon. And I further doubt we need be reminded that the coincidence of these events is discouraging — but reminded we shall be, for the reason that some things apparently need to be underscored, over and again.

I find it hard to rehearse the history of Africville — which may be summed up as a racism-driven story of human degredation and of promises broken, up to and beyond the initial days in 1964 when land-hungry Halifax, under the 1962 Rose Report’s pretense of urban renewal, forcibly removed community members in city dump trucks — and not feel in my bones that both the apology and its proposed reparations are rather lacking in sinew. There is quite a lot for which to apologize, and as the Mayor knows, “words cannot undo what has been done.” Then there is the charge that the modest reparation package (a hectare of land, $3 million toward a replica of the Seaview African United Baptist Church, and an “interpretive centre”) was arrived at without the participation of the former residents. Considered together, these engender a measure of skepticism in relation to the hopeful idea that a new era of Respect and Reconciliation is on its way. Already, one can discern the cracks in that notional pot.

This is bad enough, but now we have the matter of the Rehbergs to poison further the well. Their lawyer, Brian Vardigans, argued that the burning of a cross on a lawn is not a hate act. He noted that it has “some of the hallmarks of being hateful” and has “certainly got a racist overtone,” as if somewhere in the undertones and tannins one may find something a little less distasteful. (A hallmark, by the way, is individual and not a matter of degree or splitting of a difference. The sole purpose of a hallmark is to make plain the character of something, for instance precious metals.) As a lawyer, he may be expected to equivocate in this manner. Nonetheless he is wrong both in substance and in principle, having attempted to make a transparent act into one that’s as maybe, sort of like, but only kinda in a way. If the Africville apology is to have meaning and force, all must hear Shayne Howe on this point: “I shouldn’t have to dwell on what it means or what it is. It speaks for itself.” Or to put it another way, there must be a generalized ownership of responsibility for the racism in the ranks.

Putting aside the lawyer talk, I’ll offer a prospect in plain English. Most people in Kentville, and indeed most Canadians, are kind and generous. They do not approve of cross burnings. Indeed, in a passive sense they disapprove of racism. Unfortunately, this may not be enough — not in a world where the wounds of the past are wet, where children born in the 1990s have absorbed race hatred, and where white supremicists in darkened crevices pick at scabs and speculate upon the name Rehberg and the coming Jewish retribution for “burning some fricking wood.” It is true that words cannot undo what has been done, but what provision has been made for the present and future? Words, a building, and a couple acres of land. Given the depth of the wounds and the distance yet to traverse, I find it hard to believe that these will do.

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