Demanding reparations for slavery: Canadian organizing within a global struggle

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Cikiah Thomas. He is a longtime activist and the current chair of the Global African Congress, and he speaks with me about efforts to win reparations for the transatlantic slave trade and slavery itself -- particularly efforts taking place in the Canadian context.

The transatlantic slave trade and the enslavement of Africans in the Americas comprise one of the worst things that one group of human beings has ever done to another groups of human beings. It produced unimaginable misery and death for millions of people, and various forms of wealth and benefit, from the modest to massive, for many others. The theft of labour and lives was -- along with theft of land and lives from Indigenous peoples in the Americas and attacks on peasants and on women in Europe -- foundational to capitalism, and therefore to what we understand as "Canada" today. It was a key nexus in the development of the material and cultural forms that have persisted and evolved over centuries into the anti-Black racism that looms so large in North America today, and that so many Black youth in the Black Lives Matter movement have, in the last couple of years, become the latest in a long line of generations to protest and resist.

Different strands within this long Black freedom struggle have, over the decades and centuries, framed the struggle in a variety of ways. One way of thinking about it -- one way of focusing struggle, of shaping demands -- that has been gaining increasing visibility in the last 15 years is that of "reparations." Though there is plenty of conversation about the details of what exactly reparations might entail, the essence of the movement for reparations for the slave trade and slavery is a recognition of the massive harms done and resources taken historically, and of the continuing impacts and related ongoing injustices today. It is a demand that resources which have accumulated over centuries in centres of wealth and power in Europe and North America be returned to the descendants of those whose enslavement made that wealth possible (and who as a consequences experience ongoing immiseration). And it is a demand that the ongoing social relations that continue to organize harm and suffering and premature death into Black lives, from the very architecture of the current global order to the much more immediate and local, be transformed in just directions.

A key moment in the global growth of the movement for reparations was the United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. This meeting was a rare chance for African and African-descended people from all parts of the world to meet and discuss their experiences and struggles. Strong sentiment in favour of a push for reparations emerged from those conversations, and a number of organizations were founded to help pursue this goal. One such organization was the Global African Congress, of which Cikiah Thomas is the current chair.

Thomas talks with me about the history of slavery and the slave trade, both globally and in the Canadian context; about the ways in which that legacy is not just of the past but is very much actively present in shaping the North America of today; about the global movement for reparations; and about what that looks like in Canada.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Sudbury, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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