More than 27 million people experience slavery today as defined by international conventions, despite condemnation from world leaders that include the late Pope John Paul II, former British prime minister Tony Blair and Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean. How is modern slavery rooted in the experiences of the past? Can researching slavery’s evolution over time inform public policy and help to build an equitable, cosmopolitan world?
The Slavery, Memory, Citizenship project seeks answers to these questions. Led by York University’s Distinguished Research Professor Paul Lovejoy (right), a team of more than 50 Canadian and international scholars are researching the global migrations of African peoples under conditions of slavery and how the resulting racism arising from the exploitation of African peoples has shaped modern societies. In February, the project was awarded $2.5 million under the Major Collaborative Research Initiative (MCRI) program from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). The funding will help to implement the research agenda of the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, which Lovejoy directs.
“Every country is affected by slavery’s legacy and Canada is no exception,” said Lovejoy, who is a Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History . “We believe everyone has the right to know their own history, and we have an ongoing responsibility to examine what we choose to remember and what we forget, and to determine why and how those choices affect our society. In the process, our research is also helping to bridge gaps in Canadian family histories.”
Collaboration is a defining element of the Slavery, Memory, Citizenship project. Canada Research Chairs at Laval University, McGill University and Wilfred Laurier University are affiliated with the project, along with colleagues at numerous other Canadian universities. York project members include Professors David Trotman, Amin Alhassan, Michele Johnson, Marcia Annisette, Danielle Robinson, Modupe Olaogun, José Curto, Ratiba Hadj-Moussa and Obiora Okafor.
Internationally, the project’s partners include:
- University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation (England),
- Centre de Recherches sur les Pouvoirs Locaux dans la Caräibes (Martinique),
- Université Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal),
- Universidad de Costa Rica,
- Universidade Federal de Fluminense (Brazil),
- Institut Béninois d’Etudes et Recherches Diaspora Africaine,
- Faculté d’Humaines, Université d’Abomey-Cavali (Benin),
- Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Paris),
- Several non-university partners, including the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture (New York), Anti-Slavery International, InnovationExpedition, and the Buxton Museum and Historic Site (Ontario).
“Whether we’re talking about the historical movement of human property, or contemporary issues such as the sex trade, exploitative and forced labour practices or human organ harvesting, there’s been an explosion of interest in the study of slavery and the persistence of racism in recent years,” said Lovejoy. “I think this trend reflects the relevance of new knowledge on the global migrations of African peoples in the quest of meaningful multiculturalism, and the Tubman Institute has become widely known for contributing to the dissemination of this new information.”
The funding is part of the SSHRC’s $10-million investment in four MCRI awards that address critical issues of intellectual, social, economic and cultural significance. The seven-year grants contribute to the deeper understanding of people and society while providing graduate students with research training opportunities.
“The Slavery, Memory, Citizenship project builds upon York’s existing strengths in the social sciences and humanities, history and archiving,” said York Professor David Dewitt, associate vice-president, research (social sciences and humanities). “It exemplifies the collaboration and network-building that are the hallmarks of York’s interdisciplinary approach to effecting social change through innovation.”
“The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funds research that builds understanding of complex issues that affect our society,” said SSHRC president Chad Gaffield. “The MCRI program supports leading-edge interdisciplinary research and fosters international collaboration, strengthening Canada’s leadership role in global research.”