Africville Residents Want Compensation for the Homes Halifax Bulldozed Decades Ago

Five decades after the destruction of a largely black neighbourhood in Halifax, former residents are still seeking justice from the city that forced them from their homes.

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Feb 24 2015, 3:32pm

Africville during World War II. Photo via Flickr user Ross Dunn

Half a century after the City of Halifax bulldozed Africville—a small community in the north end of the city made up almost entirely of black Nova Scotians—the case is going back to court.

On February 25, a group of former Africville residents is taking the city to court seeking individual compensation. If a Supreme Court of Nova Scotia judge allows the case to go forward, it will affect people across Canada with roots in Africville.

Of all of Canada's racist urban planning initiatives, the city's ham-fisted relocation of the African-Nova Scotian suburb was one of the worst. Between 1962 and 1970, city officials took the land and demolished Africville residents' homes, businesses, and a church in a process city documents called "slum clearance."

"It was really damaging," Tony Smith, who grew up in Africville and was appointed spokesperson for the families, told VICE.

"What I know is the city basically—and this comes with race—they seen this community up in the north end and they thought it was an eyesore and they didn't want it to be there anymore and they just wanted to get rid of it," he said.

"They knew they could abuse their authority, it didn't matter what anybody says—they were just going to take it," he continued. "They did it very well, and they did it by a lie. We as a people have been saying that they stole our land, and they did it illegally. They lied about different things, and we've been saying that forever, but now we're going to be able to prove it in a court of law."

The appeal only has the support of about a third of former residents or their estates, with most accepting a 2010 settlement with the city. While that agreement paid out $5 million from three levels of government toward the community and included a formal apology, it did not include any individual compensation. For the community that Smith represents, that settlement doesn't make up for what the city took from them.

The city wanted the ground under Africville for a few reasons: they considered it valuable industrial land, they wanted to build a new bridge, and the planning concept of "urban renewal"—essentially flattening an existing urban area and building it up again from scratch—was popular at the time.

In the early 1960s, the city commissioned two reports on whether to move the community. The authors recommended relocation due to the suburb's underdeveloped nature—a situation created in part by the city itself.

It's often said that where the pavement ended, Africville began. The community had dirt roads and no sidewalks, and the city neglected to extend basic services, including running water and sewer pipes, to the suburb. The city also approved industrial hazards in and around Africville: a slaughterhouse, a fertilizer plant, human waste disposal pits, an infectious disease hospital, and an open dump.

But despite the hazards and lack of running water, Africville was home. In several meetings leading up to the relocation, the community unanimously stated they wanted to stay put. Halifax's mayor, Charles Vaughan, assured them the city would make the process as "painless as possible."

It was far from painless.

Officials "threatened, pressured and forced the Africville residents to agree to the compensation being offered by the City of Halifax" and paid them arbitrary sums for their land, court documents state.

In 1969, when the final holdout, 72-year-old "Pa" Carvery, refused to move even though his property had been expropriated, he was invited to Halifax City Hall where he was shown a suitcase full of money.

"They sent for me and when I got there I was taken into someone's office," he told a researcher for a 1970 report. "There was five or six persons in the room plus a suitcase full of money all tied up neatly in bundles. The suitcase was open and stuck under my nose so as to tempt me and try and pay me off right there and then."

"I didn't like that at all. It hurt me. I told them, 'You guys think you're smart, well, you're not smart enough.' Then I got up and walked out of the office. When they finally paid me it was by cheque and they came to my home to do business."

"Pa" Carvery was the last to leave. "By January 1970," the report states, "the black community that had existed for over 100 years was left to the pages of history."

As some of the older folks like to say, where ever the railroad goes, that's where Africville residents ended up. Some of them moved into a freshly constructed public housing block in Halifax's north end called Uniacke Square, where generations of Africville descendents still live today. Others bought houses in Halifax, although a few people lost them when they couldn't pay the mortgage or property taxes. Other Africville residents moved across the country where they had family, as far away as Calgary, where some of the complainants named in the court documents now live. Many older residents have died in the 45 or so years since the relocation.

Lawyer Robert Pineo argues the city gave residents the impression they had no legal legs to stand on when in fact the opposite was true. According to the city charter, officials should have told the residents their rights, provided them with legal advice and offered them fair market value for their properties.

"This was not explained to them at the time," Pineo wrote in a court document. "Their understanding of the matter was that the city had the power to acquire their lands unilaterally and there was no recourse available to them, and no means or process by which to contest the amount of the compensation, if any, that they were assigned."

The Africville community church, rebuilt after a 2010 settlement between the community and the City of Halifax. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, after former residents slammed the city with a lawsuit, the two sides reached a settlement.

In a particularly offensive act, city workers had bulldozed the community's church, known as "the beating heart of Africville," without warning one night in 1967. As part of the settlement, the city handed over 2.5 acres of land and $3 million to aid with the rebuilding of the church where it once stood. The mayor also publicly apologized.

But individual compensation was not included in the settlement. People who grew up in Africville are split on whether the 2010 settlement was adequate, or whether individual compensation is necessary.

The group asking for compensation today wants the Supreme Court judge to allow an amendment to the original claim from 1996.

According to court documents, the city is fine with some of the amendments, but opposes anything that would reopen the 2010 settlement.

"The plaintiffs, through their proposed amendments, are attempting to undo a settlement that has already been reached between the parties," city lawyers say. "A party cannot amend an action that no longer exists."

The Africville Genealogy Society signed releases on behalf of 48 estates promising not to take the city to court again over the bulldozing of the community. Another 45 people signed releases or discontinued their court claims.

That leaves 42 people and nine estates seeking compensation from the city.

Smith hopes the legal action will result in the former residents receiving fair market value for their properties. But first a judge will have to decide whether the case can proceed.

"I'm very excited to see that this is a very strong possibility after all these years, justice will finally get done and people will be vindicated," Smith says.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter.

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