For the lawyers, of course, it is about protecting the client, lessening liability, mitigating damages. In that context, perhaps, it makes lawyer sense to niggle over nouns, to parse phrases like “as if we were slaves” for literality, to offer up a bookkeeper’s balance sheet to contradict allegations of underfunding, to use all the lawyers’ tricks try to make a legal action go away.
But the class action lawsuit by more than 150 former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children is more than a legal matter.
It is a cry for justice, for an acknowledgement — and apology — for five decades of systemic and systematic physical, sexual and emotional abuse of vulnerable children under the unwatchful eye of a series of governments, whose blindness seems willful and, too often, racist.
You’d think Darrell Dexter’s NDP government would appreciate that distinction. The abuse did not happen under its watch, and the NDP has a long and honourable tradition of supporting victims like those at the Home for Coloured Children.
But it is now government, and that, it seems, changes everything.
Last week, lawyers for the Dexter government were in court arguing, in a bureaucratic, tone-deaf, legally proper but morally questionable way, to exclude parts of the complainants’ affidavits because they did not meet certain legal criteria.
As former NDP MP Gordon Earle, who quit the party over this issue, put it: while residents seek “justice and accountability… the government is taking every possible step to prevent the matter from achieving justice through the court system or achieving a full, credible and transparent examination through a public inquiry.”
There will almost certainly come a time when a Nova Scotia government, either as part of a legal settlement or to avoid a messy judicial outcome, will do the right thing and apologize to the former residents. Witness Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for Canada’s brutal Indian residential school system, Brian Mulroney’s “formal and sincere” 1988 apology to Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II and Peter Kelly’s 2010 apology to the former residents of Africville “for what they have endured.”
By then, however, the gesture will seem inadequate and insincere. The lawyers will have won. Justice will have lost. Pity.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber
Is it time for another “Encounter on the Urban Environment”?
In late February 1970, Nova Scotia’s Voluntary Planning Board invited a dozen disparate international experts—a black community leader, an industrialist, a labour leader, a journalist, an economist, an urban planner, etc.—to come to Halifax for a week-long “experiment utterly new to the western hemisphere.”
“Their assignment, although it was never explained to the 12 in precisely these terms,” noted a later report, “was to take a community of 250,000 and turn it upside down.”
They did. Given the freedom of the city, they spent long days and longer nights wandering from the Volvo auto assembly plant (Why are no blacks working here?) to the new container pier (Why is it in the wrong part of town?) to the school board office (Why is the education system so awful?) to the press club (Why is the media even worse?)…
Each evening, they staged a live televised town hall where they argued, debated, questioned, cajoled, harangued and listened to anyone who showed up. The powerless got to speak to the powerful and the powerful—in the glare of the spotlight—responded.
While the final Encounter report—cobbled together by 12 very different people between meetings, visits and late-night drinks over the course of one exhausting week—was understandably less than the sum of its parts, the process itself galvanized the city and engaged Haligonians in ways they’ve never been since.
Halifax at the time was at a crossroads, unhappy with its parochial present, trying to find a more interesting future for itself.
Although it would be unwise to heap too much credit on Encounter—the times were a changing everywhere back then—the reality is that Halifax became a much more interesting, engaged and dynamic city in the years that followed Encounter.
We could use a little of that involvement today.
Now that polarizing Peter Kelly’s decision not to re-offer for mayor has sucked the life out of what might have been a real debate over the future of our city, we need to find new ways to engage citizens in that discussion.
We could do worse than another Encounter.
Peter Kelly’s final mayoralty meltdown announcement last week was not triggered by any of the many mis-governance issues that should have long since ended his political career. Ironically, the mayor was ultimately hoist on the petard of his own sloppy-and-perhaps-worse handling of the estate of a friend, a private matter unrelated to his duties as mayor.
It is tempting at moments like these—this “after-27-years-of-public-service-I-have-made-my-contribution-to-the-good-of-the-community-to-the-very-best-of-my-ability-and-it-is-time-to-seek-new-horizons” moment—to seek to be kind too, to acknowledge the toll public service takes on a politician’s personal life.
It does. But how many times in his own eye-darting, stand-up, self-serving, stick-to-the-talking-points farewell interviews did the mayor do it for us: endlessly lamenting the marriage lost, the 90-hour weeks, the nights sleeping on the office floor?
It is tempting too to glorify any soon-to-be-gone politician’s accomplishments.
There were a few: Kelly’s genuine public apology for the wrongs of Africville, for example, is praiseworthy, as was his success in piloting the harbour solutions sewage treatment project to completion, HRM By Design, the Canada Games, the skating oval, the…
But, after 12 years—for a man who will leave office this fall as Halifax’s longest serving mayor ever—that list is woefully short.
The other side of his ledger is much longer and more damning: the botched Commonwealth Games bid, the concert-gate scandal, the lack of a business case for a new convention centre, the mindless, my-city-is-better-than-Moncton push for a new stadium, the violations of HRM By Design, the St. Pat’s school sale fiasco, the endless cat bylaw debates, the dysfunctional council meetings, the secrecy about everything, the refusal to take responsibility for anything…
Perhaps Peter Kelly’s greatest contribution to the future of our city will ultimately have been his decision not to re-offer.
We no longer have to have a referendum on his record.
We can begin to have the conversation about our future.
As Canada Post prepares issue a new stamp next month to celebrate the life of Viola Desmond, our own government seems about to quietly take a pass on the opportunity to honour the Halifax woman whose personal courage remains a symbolic inspiration in the fight for human rights in Canada.
In 1946—nine years before Rosa Parks’ refusal to get off a Montgomery, Alabama, bus helped trigger the U.S. civil rights movement—Desmond refused to give up her seat in the “whites-only” section of New Glasgow’s Roseland Theatre. She was hauled out of the theatre, thrown in jail, charged, convicted and fined $20. She fought her conviction and lost, but the embarrassing publicity helped galvanize the fight against Nova Scotia’s state-sanctioned segregation and led to changes in the law.
Nova Scotians have only recently begun to acknowledge Desmond’s significance—and suffering. Two years ago, Premier Darrell Dexter publicly apologized for the “injustice” she’d suffered and his government issued a rare posthumous pardon.
In 2010, Tory MLA Alfie MacLeod introduced a resolution in the House of Assembly calling on the province to declare Nov. 8—the day of her arrest—Viola Desmond Day.
Some in the black community argued that date was inappropriate; others complained they hadn’t been consulted.
The Dexter government consulted, but the question it asked— “how to establish a lasting form of recognition that would honour the contributions and experiences of African Nova Scotians”—seemed blandly beside the point of Macleod’s original motion.
No surprise its final report doesn’t even mention Desmond. Or that the idea for the Day now seems dead. “People,” explains a government spokesperson, “have been saying they want something that recognizes the broad scope of African-Nova Scotian accomplishments.”
Is there some reason we can’t have both?
As Desmond’s sister Wanda wrote in a recent letter to the government: “Naming a day after a popular and iconic figure does not lessen the larger ambitions of creating such a day… In fact they give the day an identity and create an entry point into an issue that otherwise may be ignored with a more generic title.”
It’s time we celebrated Viola Desmond Day.
- Viola Desmond Will Not Be Budged Facebook page
- Sister to Courage: Stories from the World of Viola Desmond, Canada's Rosa Parks
- "Past Time for Nova Scotians to Honour Viola Desmond"
- "Community Consultations Report," Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs
The lesson from last week’s reversal of council’s decision to sell the former St. Patrick’s-Alexandra school to a private developer? Even when our councillors finally, belatedly get it right, they bungle the process so badly everyone walks away more than slightly soiled and embarrassed by the whole exercise.
In December, over angry objections of north-end residents—who already believed they were being squeezed out of their own community by urban redevelopment and gentrification—council voted to peddle a local community school site to a private developer.
The problem—as quickly became apparent and should have been clear before the vote—was that council hadn’t followed city policy for disposing of surplus property. They were supposed to consult the community first.
Not that it mattered. City staff had stacked the evaluation process to make it virtually impossible for proposals from non-profit community groups to compete with those from private developers.
There were rallies. Hundreds protested. There was a petition. Close to a thousand people signed.
Last week, the issue made its way back to council. After four-and-a-half hours of “other business”—before a packed gallery present only for the school issue—councillors finally got around to debating a motion to rescind.
Coun. Jennifer Watts had barely moved her motion when city manager Richard Butts advised councillors to go into secret session to talk the motion over with city legal staff. Another secret meeting to discuss public business? Where was this city manager when Occupy Nova Scotia protestors got turfed? Oh, right. He was home in Toronto.
Council voted down the secret meeting, then voted down a motion to adjourn, then met in secret anyway, then—it’s now closing in on one in the morning—finally voted 17-5 to rescind their original decision. And they asked city staff, who, of course, had devised the flawed process in the first place, to report back on whether the process had been correctly followed.
As usual, nothing is settled.
Once again, Council has managed to alienate the community, the developers who submitted bids in good faith and average citizens who expect better.
Let’s hope there’s a lesson in that too.
Rev. Rhonda Britten may have been guilty of hyperbole when she compared last week’s city council decision to sell the former St. Patrick’s-Alexandra School to a local developer to “the rape... of a community… Africville all over again!”
But she is not entirely canary-in-the-coal-mine wrong.
In 2009, Halifax Regional School Board—over the ongoing objections of the north-end community—decided to shutter St.Pat’s-Alexandra after the 2010-11 school year.
That suddenly freed up a tantalizing 3.85-acre chunk of valuable, edge-of-downtown real estate in a rapidly gentrifying poor neighbourhood.
Last summer, the city issued a call for proposals. Six groups—three for-profit and three non-profit—responded. After evaluating them, staff last week recommended a private developer’s proposal to tear down the school and replace it with a mixed residential/affordable housing/community space development.
But Britten, who is the well-connected pastor of Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, says she didn’t even learn about the call for proposals until 12 days before the deadline.
That’s interesting. Municipal policies call for residents to be consulted before the city invites proposals if surplus schools might have community uses.
Britten’s group did quickly manage to cobble together a plan to transform the former school into spaces for community. But staff scored that pitch—along with the two other non-profit community-based proposals—at the bottom of its evaluation sheet.
No wonder. “Community interest” wasn’t one of the criteria considered. Close to 50 per cent of the final score, in fact, was made up of the bidder’s financial capability and financial offer. Not easy hills for cash-strapped community groups to climb.
To add insult to injury, councillors—who routinely debate cat bylaws more times than Fluffy has lives, and who just put off a decision on a municipal stadium again—refused Coun. Dawn Sloane’s motion to defer a final decision on the school sale for a month because of alleged flaws in the process.
St. Pat’s-Alexandra isn’t, by itself, the new Africville.
But the community is clearly under siege.
Pushing out the poor in the interests of progress.
Where have we heard that before?
Copyright 2011 Stephen Kimber