By Jenn Watt
It wasn’t until an illustration from one of Thomas C. Haliburton’s books was reproduced in a festival program that many in Windsor, N.S. became aware of the racist content in The Clockmaker, a book written in the 1830s featuring the satirical character of Sam Slick.
The illustration depicting a Black man on his knees in front of the clock-peddler Slick was immediately identified by residents as racist, spurring a decade-long conversation in the east coast town where Haliburton lived, and which celebrated Sam Slick Days from the 1970s to 2009.
“I don’t believe that our community for a moment was aware of this, this aspect of Slick when the festival was being run,” said West Hants Regional Municipality Councillor Jim Ivey in an interview with the Echo. “… it was an event to bring people to the community, it did that. It was a celebrated event and that’s all good, but once you become aware of something that’s like this, that is wholly inappropriate in current history, that’s where we decided to take a look at this and try and correct it as best we could.”
Following community conversation about the character and the writings of Haliburton – the same Haliburton after whom the village and county in Ontario is named and the same character after whom a park in Haliburton Village is named – Windsor changed the name of its festival, settling on Avon River Days in 2014, according to an article in The Hants Journal.
Yet, despite removing the name from the festival, the town still had many remnants of Slick around, including depictions of the clockmaker in wire silhouettes on telephone poles and a weather vane in the park gazebo.
In early September, Ivey put a motion before his council to have these removed as well, noting the controversy from 2008/2009.
“While technically a ‘thank you’ was being provided [in the illustration reprinted in 2008] it takes little research to determine that the illustration connected to the chapter [of The Clockmaker] ‘Slavery,’ in Haliburton’s book (as recounted through Sam Slick) is patently racist,” the synopsis document in the council package reads. “The chapter itself cannot get past the second paragraph without presenting the disturbing imagery in which the creaking sound of a sign swinging in the wind is so natural, and then it is metaphorically compared to the ill-fated death of a man in the south. A couple of other chapters have been sourced with Slick as the protagonist in racist and misogynist roles that are equally if not more disturbing while many other chapters contain nothing of this nature.”
On Sept. 22, West Hants council unanimously passed the resolution, which will remove the likenesses of the Sam Slick character, and have council write an apology letter to the person who identified the racist nature of the illustration, acknowledging the hurt that can come from such a depiction.
In a story from 2008 in The Hants Journal, a resident is quoted as commenting on the illustration: “I feel humiliated by it … It makes all the old stereotypes come back.” Another quote, from a staff member at the West Hants African Resource Centre said: “To the Black community, this was a slap in the face … and an embarrassment to our population,” and later, “It hurts self-esteem. When I saw the image, it made me want to cry.”
A quick perusal of Sam Slick: The Clockmaker, which is available to read online for free, reveals many instances of the N-word and degrading descriptions of Black people.
A book written on T.C. Haliburton by scholar Richard A. Davies called Inventing Sam Slick: A biography of Thomas Chandler Haliburton, notes the racism in the author’s work.
“Anthologists in the present day are hard pressed to find a passage of The Clockmaker that will not offend our sensibilities,” Davies writes. “This is not simply a case of unfairly censuring the values of the past. Haliburton alludes to the [N-word] whenever he wants to remind Nova Scotians of how low they have fallen. … Haliburton’s racism reverberates through his work. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the presence of Blacks in Nova Scotia is unwelcome …”
In the early ‘90s, renowned Canadian literary figure George Elliott Clarke, wrote an essay in the Halifax Chronicle Herald calling attention to the bigotry in Haliburton’s work, according to Davies.
And in August, a literary society at University of King’s College in Halifax established in 1884 chose to change its name from the Haliburton Society to UKing’s Literary Society.
The county and village of Haliburton in Ontario were named for the same Haliburton who has caused so much controversy in Nova Scotia. A politician and judge as well as an author, Haliburton was the first chairman of the Canada Land and Emigration Company, which purchased the land in Ontario that would become the Municipality of Dysart et al in Haliburton County. “But there is no evidence that he ever made the arduous journey to the land that the company owned,” Davies writes in his book.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts said that she has never read Haliburton’s books and was unaware of the controversy in Windsor, N.S., before it was brought to her attention. She said her knowledge of Sam Slick was limited to the phrases popularized in the books (facts are stranger than fiction and quick as a wink are two such phrases).
“The key to me is, is it celebrating racism or is it just a time, you know, a sign of the times,” she said.
No conversation has ever come across the council table while she has served about Sam Slick, and Roberts said council would be open to discussing it, if it was brought forward by a member of the public.
She also said she’d like to hear from local historians for context.
“If it comes to that, then we’ll see what council [decides] if we want to change the name of the park. Again, is the character, and through the writings, are they celebrating racism or is it a sign of the times and what was happening at the time,” she asked.
For Councillor Ivey from West Hants Regional Municipality, examination of the text has convinced him that the work is not merely outdated.
“Some people believe when you do something like this you’re erasing history, but you’re not. It’s that you’re not celebrating an aspect of history that isn’t celebratory,” he said.
Ivey said there is a museum in his town dedicated to Thomas C. Haliburton on the property that the author once owned, with professional interpreters who can give context to his work and discuss his role in history.
Following council’s decision on Sept. 22, West Hants Mayor Abraham Zebian took a moment to address members of his community that still have concerns about the removal of Sam Slick imagery from the town.
“There’s been a lot of comments in the public about council attacking the history of our communities [through removing Sam Slick imagery] … It’s trying to recognize the hurt that historical figures may have had and the continuation of that hurt for certain groups in our community and the only way to get over that and to beat it is to face it head on,” he said.