Encounter re-encountered, with lessons for today

In 1970, a dozen outside experts came to Halifax for a week to turn the city ‘upside down.’ Last week, a local group played excerpts from ‘Encounter on Urban Environment,’ the NFB’s documentary on that cataclysmic week in Halifax, and discussed whether it’s time for another upside-downing.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner January 28, 2019.

I must admit I was surprised — and delighted — to Facebook-find a group I’d never heard of that is staging an event this Thursday (January 31, 2019) to sit around, watch excerpts from a 50-year-old NFB documentary and then discuss, with Councillor Lindell Smith, HRM planners and others, “parallels between the development happening in the 1970s and the state of development and progress in Halifax today.”

If that doesn’t sound like your get-off-the-couch-and-out-of-the-house enticement for a winter’s night, bear with me.

That 1971 NFB film, Encounter on Urban Environment, documents a cataclysmic, city-shaking week in late February 1970 during which “12 specialists—most of them men [all of them at that time actually and inevitably men] of international reputation—gathered in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take part in an experiment utterly new to the Western Hemisphere. Their assignment,” wrote Ken Hartnett, a Washington-based urban affairs reporter for Associated Press who documented the week, “was never explained to the 12 in precisely these terms, [but it] was to take a community of 250,000 persons and turn it upside down.”

Halifax at the time needed more than a little upside-downing. And it was ripe for it.

A ragtag group of citizen activists had just rebuffed an attempt by developers to drive a massive concrete expressway straight through the heart of downtown Halifax, obliterating most of its harbourfront history. And that same group were already deep in the messy middle of what would become a decade-long battle to protect Citadel Hill’s iconic views of the harbour from a powerful, higher-the-better cabal of developers.

Meanwhile, many traditional — and traditionally conservative — leaders of the local black community found themselves under fire from within after the city razed the poor-but-proud community of Africville in the name of urban renewal. New and more radical voices — including activist Rocky Jones, who invited members of the American Black Panthers to town — suddenly took centre stage.

The idea to stage Encounter came about more by accident than design. It was the brainchild of staff at a government-appointed citizen’s policy group called Voluntary Planning. VP’s board, in fact, was made up mostly of members in good standing of the local business and political establishment. Though they were warned about what might happen if 12 outsiders were given free rein to turn the city upside down for a week, “they didn’t believe me,” the board’s chair ruefully admitted afterwards.

What did happen?

I wrote about that week in an updated, 2010 version of Thomas Raddall’s history of Halifax, Warden of the North:

Over the course of a week, the carefully chosen experts — six from Canada, five from the U.S. and one an American working in England, whose day jobs ranged from economists to black community organizer to industrialist to labour leader to journalist — spent exhausting days and nights meeting, listening, sometimes cajoling or arguing with Haligonians from every strata of society about what their city was and what it could be. The process allowed the traditionally powerless to finally have a voice and forced the powerful to listen, and respond.

Why were there no black faces working at Volvo, the Swedish car maker that had been lured with taxpayer dollars to set up shop in north-end Halifax cheek by jowl to a black neighbourhood? Why did Industrial Estates Ltd., the province’s business development agency, have such a lousy “batting average” when it came to attracting development to the provincial capital? Why were so few affordable housing units being built? Why was the city’s daily newspaper failing to cover what was really happening in the city? Why was the school system so awful? And why had the police really raided that radical educational commune attended by the police chief’s daughter? Why was the new container pier in a location everyone agreed was at the wrong end of town? Why had the city razed the poor but proud black community of Africville? And “what the hell has the new Human Rights Commission done about Africville” anyway?

What made the process so powerful was that the questions—parochial, petty, sometimes profound—got asked and occasionally answered in the full glare of television cameras. Finlay MacDonald, the owner of CJCH Television [now CTV] and one of the organizers of the Encounter process, broadcast the team’s nightly town hall meetings live. With only two English-language television channels to watch, the sessions quickly became must-see events for Haligonians. No one knew what might happen next, or who might say words not otherwise permitted on television.

While it isn’t easy to point to specific city-changed-forever things that happened directly as a result of Encounter, my own sense — I was a young reporter at the time — is that that week changed the psychology of our city and its citizens in significant and positive ways.

While it would be impossible to duplicate the Encounter experience today — start with the reality we are no longer a two-TV station-no-internet island — we do face, and need to face up to, many of the same sorts of challenges the city faced in 1970. Urban development, affordable housing, transit, poverty, racism…

The question is how to do that.

Enter Global Shapers Halifax, which is sponsoring this week’s Encounter re-encountered and bills itself as “a community of engaged young professionals on a mission to make our city the best it can be!” And: “Aiming to increase civic engagement among young folks through a series of non-partisan workshops, presentations, talks, events and more!”

At one level, they sound like a younger, hipper, more aware version of Voluntary Planning, the group that sponsored the original Encounter. But they, like the Voluntary Planning planners, have also created an opening to talk again about those issues.

This week’s event, in fact, is the kick off to a year-long project they are vowel-less-ly describing as PRJCT CTZN. “Each month will be a different style of event, with constant evaluation and tweaks. We will aim to decrease voter apathy, increase political dialogue and demystify the political process. Democracy doesn’t just end at the voting booth, it’s a year-round activity.”

It is encouraging, symbolically, that they have chosen to stage this Thursday’s event in the late Rocky Jones’ former law office at 5557 Cunard Street. One of the clips being shown from the film is of Jones talking about the Africville displacement, Emily Miller, one of the organizers, tells me. “This film came out almost 50 years ago and the fact is we are still grappling with a lot of the issues that were mentioned in it at the time. For example, the Cogswell Interchange had just been completed and opened, and now, in the present day, we are beginning the process of deconstructing it and creating a whole new public space. There is also a strong discussion about the displacement of Africville residents, a major issue we are still grappling with today.”

There is clearly still much to discuss. We could use a little more upside-downing.

***

Kudos to two women I’ve written about recently.

First, a thank you to the woman who can still only be identified as TC. One of convicted killer and serial rapist William Shrubsall’s many victims, her ongoing refusal-to-disappear lobbying public officials has forced federal and provincial politicians to belatedly take another look at last fall’s federal parole board’s decision to grant parole to still-dangerous offender Shrubsall. That decision, it is now clear, had nothing to do with Shrubsall’s rehabilitation and everything to do with dumping the costs of his imprisonment on US authorities while un-necessarily making American women less safe. While the parole board’s decision itself is past changing — Shrubsall has been transferred to US authorities — TC’s efforts have forced politicians to re-think our dangerous offender policies.

Second, I am pleased to report that Pamela Yates, the prominent Canadian forensic psychologist, has finally won her battle with the self-protecting, self-serving Nova Scotia Board of Examiners in Psychology. I wrote about her case last June in the middle of a long legal battle after her application to practise in Nova Scotia had been arbitrarily rejected by the regulator. In 2015, that decision cost her — and us — her much-needed position as head of the Youth Forensic Services, Mental Health and Addictions program at the IWK. Finally, in late fall, the board agreed to grant her her licence. Better late than never.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner
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