What’s in a Name?

Middle Passage Law Series

“What’s in a name?”

Answer: something, nothing or perhaps everything.

The Middle Passage name was carefully chosen and is the everything of the series. A little confused, let me explain.

YES, I will make the admission right away, the name is intentionally provocative – just like the issue of race and the law. However, the name is not meant to be negative in any way; instead it is meant to provoke thought and meaningful discussion.

For those of you who are still puzzled as to the exact meaning of the name – I sure some of you have figured it out already, at least in part.

In the simplest of terms the Middle Passage Law name comes from the Middle Passage.


I know I know it’s a circular definition but I can’t help it, I am a future lawyer after all.

The choice of the name is the best way, in my opinion, to make a direct connection between one of the most sinister chapters in our history – and “our” is being used here not just to mean Black/African but Canadian, indeed the world – and today’s social, political, economic and legal realities. What is this connection you may ask?

Answer: the African slave trade and its continuing legacy.

The Middle Passage and the African slave trade are so intimately connected that one cannot address one without addressing the other.

Oh No! That feeling of discomfort or elation that you felt in the series opener is back again isn’t it. You might even be thinking: ‘Here we go again! It’s always about slavery. It happened sooooo long ago, why not just get over it’ or ‘I am over it?’

Ok, ok, just relax, collect yourself and keep on reading, it will all be worth it. Trust me.

Before I respond to that – and I think my response is going to shock a lot of people – I must first give a less circular definition of the Middle Passage. To brief the Middle Passage, is the perilous voyage Africans where forced to take – to put it mildly – from West Africa to the New World to be sold into slavery.

The Middle Passage helps to explain – generally and very over simplistically – why there are Black people in the western hemisphere. However, and more importantly, its history and continuing legacy helps to explain why these people are a marginalized group.

Well, that’s enough of the history and sociology lesson but it was necessary for context.

‘So what does that have to do with me?’ Perhaps you are not black or perhaps you are but you are not a descendant from those who made the Middle Passage voyage.

Answer: everything.

Yes, everything, as hard as this maybe for some of you to believe.

For those of you that are Black but not descendant from the Middle Passage, the everything for you lies in the simple fact that you are Black. Yes I said: Black!

You, well at least some of you, may say well Yes but a different Black and you would be fully entitled to that label – if you want it. The Black community after all isn’t a monolith and the diversity within the community has to be accounted for, celebrated and respected.

Fair enough, different yes but Black none the less.

It matters little that you and or your bloodline has come relatively recently and directly from Africa, the Middle Passage directly affects you. Don’t take my word for it, take a minute and simply reflect on your own experiences in Canada.

Are you with me now? Well, I hope so. If not, this should help.

You know that feeling of exclusion or marginalization you have often felt – No, still not with me.

Ok, what about that feeling of having to prove or validate yourself constantly and many times over that of your colleagues – No or……. well maybe, am I getting closer?

Well, this should do the trick.

What about that feeling of responsibility and worse yet, normality, you are made to bear whenever a Black person is accused of a crime, while your successes and the successes of others like you are dismissed as being an irregularity or even worse yet, good for a Black person – Aha! With me now – good!

For those of you that are not Black you may think that the legacy of the Middle Passage is not yours or that it does not directly impact you. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong, it has everything to do with you.

‘What!! How could this be?’

Firstly, the history of slavery in Canada is well documented and the Middle Passage is undeniably interwoven in to the fabric of Canadian social, political, economic and legal history.

I would like to take a moment just to add a perspective on what is often considered a boring topic – History, namely Legal History. Legal History is any thing but boring, but that is simply my nerdish opinion. However, what is not opinion but fact is that legal history for student, academic and practitioner alike is always contemporary.

Legal history is always contemporary?

Yes, contemporary.

But how?

Answer: Precedents.

The study, the teaching and the practice of law are all exercises in Legal History.

Precedents are legal history, and as a corner stone of the Common Law are central to our concept and conception of justice. Thus, whether studied, taught or applied Precedents always bring legal history to the fore.

Secondly, we all live in Canada and what affects one segment of our society affects us all. If you don’t believe that or worse yet you don’t live, study or work like it’s true, it is a sad day for the legal profession, nay, Canadian society.

The sad part is not that you will not address, empathize or advocate Black or other diversity community issues and concerns but that you will not address, empathize or advocate for yourself.

‘What!! How does that work?’

What needs to be understood and often isn’t, is that by standing for justice, equality and diversity you are in fact standing for yourself. And I am not simply being altruistic here, though I must confess altruism is a factor.

The point to understand here is that you may or may not ever be in the majority but you will always belong to a minority of some sort – in thought, belief, opinion or expression. Therefore, unless you are prepared to defend the rights of others, your rights will never be secure.

The ancient Greek historian Thucydides puts it succinctly when he was asked when will justice come to Athens and he replied:

Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are injured.

Now as to a response to the comment posed earlier that: ‘it’s always about slavery. It happened sooooo long ago, why not just get over it’ or ‘I am over it?’ Well, for now I say:

Stay tuned.