CANADA

Putting rage to work

Nova Scotia’s blacks mobilize against racism

JOHN DeMONT August 19 1991
CANADA

Putting rage to work

Nova Scotia’s blacks mobilize against racism

JOHN DeMONT August 19 1991

Putting rage to work

CANADA

Nova Scotia’s blacks mobilize against racism

Led by a band belting out When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, the procession mirrored the 1960s civil-rights marches held in the southern United States. “Hey, hey, ho, ho. Racism has got to go,” shouted a raucous crowd of more than 1,000 as it snaked through the streets of downtown Halifax on Aug. 1. The march was a direct response to a riot involving blacks and whites on those same downtown streets last month. That outbreak of violence left 15 peo-

pie injured and eight more under arrest. But many Nova Scotia blacks have hailed the response to the violent clash—and to the ensuing peaceful parade, which was joined by about as many whites as blacks—as the first indication of a new breakthrough in their two-centuriesold struggle against racism. Declared march organizer Darryl Gray, a black Baptist minister: “Finally, we have a window of opportunity to make real gains.” Indeed, last week Gray and other black leaders vowed to use further demonstrations, boycotts and other tools of the

civil-rights struggle to ensure that their dream of lasting social change in the province does not evaporate.

For Nova Scotia’s 30,000 blacks, many of whom trace their family histories in the region back to the American Revolution, the potential for progress has seldom looked brighter. At the same time, recent events have underscored the urgent need for change. A string of violent incidents with racial overtones has focused attention on the simmering frustrations within

the community. Federal, provincial and municipal governments have responded by pledging concrete steps to reduce discrimination. But those undertakings may not satisfy some of the province’s blacks. Indeed, the community itself is divided over what course offers the best chance of achieving change. Said Ogueri Ohanaka, executive director of the Halifax-based Black United Front: “Our younger generation is simply not willing to sit back and suffer more humiliation.”

Halifax blacks gave a vivid demonstration of

their anger in the early hours of July 19. What began as a routine settling of accounts between two barroom bouncers, one white and the other black, exploded into a full-fledged riot when 150 people—mostly blacks—rioted downtown, smashing store windows and randomly attacking white passers-by. The following night, despite a beefed-up police presence on Halifax streets, a plank-swinging melee between three blacks and three whites in a suburban area five kilometres from the earlier disturbance left one black man in hospital with a stab wound. And a day later, black assailants beat two white people in the city’s heavily black north end.

Elsewhere in the province, race-tinged violence has flared up in smaller centres as well. On July 27, a confrontation between a number of white men and black youths outside a pizza parlor in the Annapolis Valley farm town of

Kentville, 80 km northwest of Halifax, left one white man, 27-year-old Warren Frederick Bond, in critical condition in hospital. Police charged two 17-year-old black youths—whose identities could not be revealed under the Young Offenders Act—with aggravated assault in connection with the baseball-bat-wielding brawl. Earlier on the same Saturday evening, dozens of black and white youths clashed in downtown Sydney, a gritty industrial centre on the western tip of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, apparently as the result of a

long-standing neighborhood feud. Police who broke up the brawl later charged 13 people and confiscated several baseball bats. Black community leaders emphasize that they do not condone the violence. Still, they say that they understand the fury and frustration that the young people feel. Declared Yvonne Thomas Atwell, a representative of the Afro-Canadian Caucus of Nova Scotia: “These recent outbursts reflect rage which has been simmering for generations.”

Many blacks say that conditions are almost as bad as they were when their ancestors arrived after the American Revolution. At that time, British colonial authorities distributed land to newly freed black slaves who arrived with other Loyalist refugees from the United States. But the land assigned to blacks was the least desirable—rocky hills and swampland where farming was nearly impossible. And many of the 38 predominantly black communities in the province remain among Nova Scotia’s poorest. In some remote rural villages, unemployment approaches 80 per cent.

Blacks claim that they remain badly served by government. Community leaders have long complained that blacks are underrepresented in government workplaces, in particular in the education system, police forces and fire departments. And indeed, the provincial human rights commission recently ruled that Halifax Metro Transit—the city’s bus service—had discriminated against a black applicant in refusing to employ him; the commission awarded the victim $47,000 in compensation. At the same time, black representatives assert that police and the legal system have also routinely discriminated against blacks. A 1989 royal commission report dealing with the wrongful murder conviction and 11-year imprisonment of Cape Breton Micmac Donald Marshall documented widespread discrimination against both Indians and blacks within the Nova Scotia justice system. Declared that report: “From their initial involvement as slaves in Nova Scotia, the black population has been obstructed from sharing fully in Nova Scötian society.” The commission recommended that the province amend its Human Rights Act to provide fairer treatment.

Black community leaders, however, say that subtle forms of racism are almost impossible to eliminate by legislation. In one case last winter, a black university instructor laid a complaint before the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission to stop a Halifax Zellers store from selling racist dolls. Black representatives claim as well that many downtown Halifax bars do not admit blacks, and that many black entrepreneurs have greater difficulty than their white competitors in securing investment financing and loans. Declared Irvine Carvery, a black community activist in Halifax: “It boggles my mind when I think that we still live in these backward conditions.”

Still, members of Nova Scotia’s black community currently seem more buoyant than ever before. There is a mood of guarded optimism, particularly as a new generation of socially conscious young leaders emerges. Well-educat-

ed and politically sophisticated, they say that they are determined to use the activist tactics of the 1960s civil-rights movement in the United States to fight discrimination and segregation in 1990s Atlantic Canada. Said Gray, an American citizen who was active in the civil-rights movement before moving to Nova Scotia, his mother’s birthplace, last year: “We have to organize in the streets as well as in the suites.”

That appeal seems to be attractive to youn-

ger blacks. Young activists are playing a central role in the anti-racism war. In fact, the Cultural Awareness Youth Group of Nova Scotia, which is made up mainly of young blacks, was the driving force behind the Aug. 1 march in Halifax. Last winter, the same group marched through the city’s downtown to protest against bars that have policies designed to deny blacks entrance. Added Tracey Jones, 29, a black library branch head: “Young people suffer the most from racism. Our concerns have been ignored for too long.”

But other, more established members of the black community say that militancy may not be the most effective way to achieve change. Members of an alliance of 11 Nova Scotia black groups strongly criticized the Halifax march, arguing that it might lead to more violent racial confrontations. Said Cecil Wright, a vice-president of the Black United Front: “We can achieve more just by sitting down and forcing government to listen to what we want.” Clearly, government is now prepared to

listen. Even before the recent outbreaks of violence, Nova Scotia’s Conservative premier, Donald Cameron—whose government has a precarious one-seat majority in the legislature—had already pledged to take action. Cameron said that the government would redraw provincial electoral boundaries around the Prestons, a cluster of predominantly black villages just east of Halifax, to guarantee election of the province’s first black MLA. And leaders of all three provincial political parties are pressing Gray and other prominent blacks to run under their banners in the new riding.

Other actions designed to reduce tensions are pending. Two weeks ago, eight black representatives joined officials from all three levels of government to form a working group that by Sept. 1 will recommend a plan to end discrimination against blacks in Nova Scotia generally and Halifax in particular. Said Halifax Mayor Ronald Wallace: “There is an honest commitment to achieve change in this city.”

In fact, several Halifaxarea municipalities have already taken steps directed at increasing opportunities for blacks. In Dartmouth, across Halifax harbor from the provincial capital, Mayor John Savage said that a program to assist black businesses in winning city contracts has been under way for the past four years. Since 1988, he added, the program has directed $1.3 million to black contractors. Halifax County Warden Laszlo Lichter, who administers the unincorporated area surrounding Halifax and Dartmouth—including several predominantly black communities—said that the county launched a similar program earlier this year. And in Halifax, Mayor Wallace said that the city has recently revised job application forms in an effort to identify qualified black candidates. As a result, he added, the city’s first two black firefighters are nearing the end of training before joining the Halifax Fire Department.

Some older blacks dismiss those undertakings as useless, saying that similar promises and programs have failed in the past. Others say that community and provincial leaders have finally made a long-awaited breakthrough. But they insist that more must be forthcoming. Said Gray: “On Sept. 1, there has got to be something on the table.” Otherwise, even pacifists like himself warn that simmering black rage could take on even more tragic dimensions.

JOHN DeMONT