Nova Scotia

Why there might be a case for reparations because of the Halifax Explosion

Two legal workers in Halifax recently examined relief given to 50 black families during the Halifax Explosion. Their research helps illustrate the disparity between what black families and white families received, and suggests possible ways to make amends.

Researchers say black Nova Scotians were discriminated against by the relief commission after 1917 explosion

Four women walk from Africville following the Halifax Explosion. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 2451)

The morning of Dec. 6, 1917, would have started normally for Mary and Levi Lucas, as it did for every other family in Halifax. But by midday, their lives were in ruins, thanks to the Halifax Explosion.

The couple rented their home on Cornwallis Street and Levi owned a small shoe-shining business. But during the explosion, Mary lost an eye and Levi suffered a head injury while their neighbourhood was levelled by the blast.

At the end of January, a worker with the Halifax Relief Commission cut off food assistance to the family. The worker wrote of the family:

"Claim that both himself and wife were injured in the Explosion, his wife requiring operation on eye. Mentions cataract. Doubtful if it is an Explosion case. Suggest investigation."

Two legal workers in Halifax recently examined relief given to black families, including the Lucases. Their research helps illustrate the disparity between what black families and white families received, and suggests possible ways to make amends.

The Halifax Relief Committee file for Mary and Levi Lucas and their eight children. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Katrin MacPhee, a Halifax lawyer, was inspired to research the topic by Dalhousie University professors Afua Cooper and Michelle Williams, who suggested an academic paper on the topic would be useful.

"It definitely confimed for me what African-Nova Scotians had spoken about, a history of discrimination in the aftermath of the explosion. I think it really validates the sense in the community that an injustice was done," MacPhee said.

MacPhee and her research partner, Mark Culligan, used files from the Nova Scotia Archives to compare the experiences of 50 black families and 50 non-black families who were all given relief funds. They found definite differences between the two groups.

For example, when the researchers examined personal effects claims, they found that on average the 50 non-black families in their study claimed $267.93. On average, those families were granted about 79 per cent of their claim.

By contrast, on average the 50 black families claimed $217.26 for personal effects and were granted about 53 per cent of their claim. Relief workers often wrote skeptically about the claims made by blacks, or did not try very hard to find the families to offer relief.

"It's really easy to quantify the discrimination," MacPhee said.

Katrin MacPhee is a lawyer in Halifax and one of the two researchers who worked on the project. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

"The systemic issue with the way that relief was handed out was that the relief commission sought to restore the social order as it existed in Halifax before the explosion," Culligan said.

"So that meant compensating people with property to the value of their property, and compensating for lost wages more to people who had formalized, high-skilled employment."

Blacks in Halifax were less likely to own property and less likely to have formal jobs, and this effectively cut them off from relief.

Cooper, who is also the poet laureate for the Halifax region, said she was happy that MacPhee and Culligan acted on the suggestion to research the experience of the black community during the Halifax Explosion.

Mark Culligan is a community legal worker at Dalhousie Legal Aid. He worked on the research project with his wife, Katrin MacPhee. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

"I know some other people have written on it, but in a more general way," she said. "I'm just thrilled."

"For me, it's the other half now that's being told, the other half of the story that's been suppressed and buried."

MacPhee and Culligan, who are married, also examined different legal avenues today's black community could use to seek reparations for the unfair distribution of funds.

Those included techniques like filing claims under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or human rights law. However, the pair concluded it would be extremely difficult to win such cases.

Afua Cooper is a professor at Dalhousie University and the poet laureate of Halifax. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

"It's really unfortunate for groups that have been discriminated against historically that the way the legal system has evolved has made it very difficult to actually bring these claims," MacPhee said.

The researchers concluded that because there are so many obstacles to a legal case, reparations might be easier to win through political action.

Lynn Jones is a community activist who has been working on reparations for historical injustices for many years.

"When we talk about reparations, we need to understand that in Canada there has never been a reparations claim made on behalf of black people," she said.

Lynn Jones is a social activist who has been working on reparations for Nova Scotia's black community for years. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Jones feels there are many incidents in Nova Scotia where a case for reparations could be made, such as the destruction of Africville, abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and the Halifax Explosion.

"If we had obtained what was rightfully due to us at that time, how might we be living today? What kind of properties, land, might we possess today? And by that not happening, how can we be compensated in today's terms?" she said.

Jones said reparations could come in the form of educational programs and services, business and development support, supports for families and children, or direct financial compensation.

"There should be some way of trying to obtain some equity today," she said.