Searching for a Promised Land

Long-time SSHRC-funded researcher inspired Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes

University of Waterloo professor Jim Walker is a leading expert on the history of human rights and race relations in Canada. In fact, it was his research that served as foundational inspiration for author Lawrence Hill’s award-winning 2007 novel, The Book of Negroes. A family friend of Hill’s, Walker met with the author regularly during the writing of the book, discussing issues of accuracy and historical detail.

Recently adapted as a six-part miniseries airing on CBC Television in early January 2015, The Book of Negroes chronicles the life of Aminata Diallo, from her childhood abduction in 1740s West Africa to her death as an elderly woman, many years later.

Walker was originally inspired to conduct research into the history of Black Nova Scotians by the civil rights movement, and by the late political activist and lawyer Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones.

“[My research] began with an interest in the African-Canadian community in Nova Scotia,” says Walker. “Over the years, it has extended to include the study of other racialized minorities in Canada, as well as issues surrounding the Holocaust and international human rights. I continue to research and teach in this general area, exploring the evolution of public policies intended to address social injustices.”

Walker was SSHRC’s 2003 Bora Laskin National Fellow in Human Rights Research, and recently received the Ontario Black History Society’s Olivier Le Jeune Memorial Award. He is also one of SSHRC’s longest-funded researchers; his work has been regularly supported since 1968, first by the Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences—SSHRC’s predecessor—and later by SSHRC itself.

“Since my student days in the 1960s, the main focus of my research and writing, and of my extracurricular activities, has been the issue of racial justice,” says Walker.