Race in Nova Scotia: one small step forward, another giant leap into the past

Back in the fall of 1968, Stokely Carmichael’s mere presence scared the hell out of Halifax. Are there lessons for today?

The column first appeared in the HalifaxExaminer December 3, 2018.

Last month, the Bank of Canada released its new $10-banknote featuring an image of Viola Desmond, the iconic Canadian civil rights pioneer who refused to give up her seat in the whites’-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow in 1946, and touched off this country’s modern civil rights era nine years before Rosa Parks became — more accurately — America’s Viola Desmond.

Although she died in 1965, it took official white society here 45 years to begin to acknowledge Desmond’s important contribution with the Nova Scotia legislature’s 2010 posthumous pardon and apology. And now, of course, with a bank note that also features a backdrop map of Halifax’s north-end black community, which, as the Bank itself notes, “served as a source of invaluable support during [Desmomd’s] struggle for justice.”

Less than two weeks after the Viola Desmond $10-bill officially launched, there was another ceremony near the Stanfield International Airport to rename a road to honour another pioneer, Walter Peters, a Nova Scotian who was not only Canada’s first black fighter jet pilot but also one of the founders of — and a pilot with — the famous air force aerobatic team, the Snowbirds, not to forget an aviation safety advisor to the United Nations.

Noted his daughter Shelley: “Everything that he did was sort of the first of something.”

In between those moments of celebration, however, there was news of a different sort. On Nov. 22, Dalhousie University professor Isaac Saney told a press conference about a frightening incident. A month before, he’d been about to board a Metro Transit bus with his six-month-old daughter in a stroller when a white woman in her 40s and a younger white man in his late teens “barged” past them and another young, “probably” south Asian family with another baby in a stroller.

“In Canada,” the woman told Saney, who is black, “don’t you know there’s priorities about who can board this bus?”

When Slaney rightly pointed out the elderly, those with disabilities and people with children in strollers have boarding priority, the duo unleashed a string of “anti-immigrant, racist” remarks. Saney asked them to stop, but the woman stood up in the bus and shouted: “Do you want us to really be fucking racist? We can be fucking racist. Shut the fuck up.”

The encouraging news is that other passengers spoke up in his support and the bus driver ordered the racists off the bus. One woman even got off the bus with Saney and his daughter a few stops later in case their tormentors had followed. They had, so the police were called.

Still…

Two small, belated steps forward, one giant leap back into our racist abyss. Again. Always.

It was fitting, if coincidental, that the indefatigable Saney — who teaches Dalhousie University’s first-ever-in-its-200-year-history course on the Black Experience in Nova Scotia — was the key organizer of a Friday night event: “Revolution in Halifax! Halifax in Revolution! The Black Panthers, the Black United Front & the African Nova Scotian Struggle for Self-Determination.”

Close to 100 people gathered at the North Branch Library Friday to mark the 50th anniversary of a highly political Black Family Meeting at the library on Nov. 30, 1968, during which 400 black Nova Scotians came together to discuss and debate black liberation.

Saney called the anniversary “a time to reflect on what was accomplished and what has not been accomplished.”

That’s never as simple as it might seem.

That 1968 meeting, in fact, is just one among a series of seismic events that shook Halifax out of its racial somnolence between the fall of 1968 and the spring of 1970, events I covered as a fresh-faced and naïve young reporter.

The seeds for what was to come were planted the month before in Montreal at a Congress of Black Writers conference where Rocky Jones — the Truro-born, Toronto-radicalized and newly awakened voice of black power in Canada — was one of the keynote speakers.

During the international gathering, Rocky struck up a friendship with Stokely Carmichael, then the prime minister of the American Black Panther Party. He invited him back to Halifax for a few days of post-conference rest and relaxation. But word of the visit quickly leaked out and the Halifax airport was crawling with cops and reporters when they landed.

Carmichael’s mere presence — other Black Panthers would follow in the weeks to come — scared the hell out of Halifax.

“People were frightened, and not just white people but black people too,” wrote Jones in his autobiography, Burnley ‘Rocky’ Jones: Revolutionary, still the most complete and most compelling account of those days in Halifax. “To have someone of his calibre, by far the most famous black militant in America, and to have him come to Halifax and be staying with me, at that time maybe the best-known black militant in Canada, you have these two putting their heads together, you know it is revolution time.”

Ironically, Rocky noted the original idea for the Black Family Meeting actually came from members of the Black Panthers who — despite their public reputation as gun-toting revolutionaries — most often focused, in the day-to-day, on community organizing and building.

Saney decided to organize Friday night’s anniversary meeting, in part because the original was such an “incredible event,” the first time so many people from so many parts of the black community got together in one room to speak for themselves to themselves. Those who were there — it was a blacks-only event — have described a sense of “euphoria” and “the glow of black power” in the room.

That said, Saney acknowledges, everyone understands today it was not an uncomplicated moment for the African Nova Scotian community, even at the time.

In fact, the traditional community leadership, epitomized by the Rev. W. P. Oliver, originally opposed even the idea of the meeting. When it became clear it would go ahead anyway, he announced he would chair it.

That was the beginning of the end.

While those attending quickly agreed on the need for a province-wide organization that could speak to and for the community, Oliver and other conservative leaders co-opted that desire — and the apparent threat posed by Jones and the community’s growing militancy — to scare $500,000 from Ottawa to set up an organization called the Black United Front. But they made sure Jones and the militants had no role in BUF’s future leadership

Partly because it was inevitably beholden to the governments that funded it, BUF never really lived up to its potential as a voice and a catalyst for the community. When the government finally pulled the financial plug nearly 20 years later, the organization disappeared without a trace.

“Nobody misses BUF,” Saney tells me, “but everybody misses what BUF could have been.”

Which brings us to the second part of Saney’s hopes for Friday’s anniversary event. An opportunity to look forward.

Which may be why Saney ended his own speech at the library by quoting Rocky Jones from the grave. “The Black United front began with such hope and idealism,” Jones wrote in his autobiography, “but it went down the path of government dependency and eventually it disappeared because it had long outlived its value to the community… From a historical point of view, the message is that you need wholesale change, fundamental structural change. Messing around with partial reforms will not do anything except delay the solution. This is the critical lesson, I would say, of my lifetime as a community activist. As the saying goes, ‘freedom is a constant struggle.’”

One small step forward, many giant leaps back. But then always another step forward.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner
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