Stephen Kimber

Nova Scotia’s something-for-everyone holiday a cowardly cop-out

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It began with a January phone call from a school principal, inviting Wanda and Joe Robson to travel from their home in Cape Breton to metro to attend a Feb. 17 unveiling of a portrait honouring Wanda’s sister, Viola Desmond.

Desmond — who was convicted for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946, nine years before Rosa Park’s refusal to sit in the blacks-only section of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus launched the American civil rights movement — is one of Canada’s still-too-little-celebrated heroes.

Her now 87-year-old sister Wanda is among many who’ve campaigned to have a new February provincial holiday designated “Viola Desmond Day — A Day To Honour All Those Who Have Fought for Social Justice in Nova Scotia.” The Cape Breton Regional Municipality and town councils in New Glasgow and Shelburne have voiced their support .

No one told Wanda there was any connection between the portrait unveiling and plans to announce the holiday, not even when Heritage Minister Tony Ince called to tell Wanda how much he’d like to see her at the unveiling.

Wanda and Joe couldn’t go, They only found out what had happened — and then only part of it — last Monday when Wanda got a congratulatory call from Wendy Bergfeldt, the host of Sydney’s CBC radio afternoon show. Ince and Labour Minister Kelly Regan had announced the 2015 holiday would be named Viola Desmond Day. Wanda said she was “thrilled.”

“I said I was pleased,” Wanda says now. “I had to be pleased.”

But there was a catch. Only the first holiday will honour Desmond. “Each year,” Kelly told reporters, “we'll celebrate a different contribution to Nova Scotia's storied past and diverse culture.”

When she learned the full truth. Wanda felt “blindsided. I’m not happy.”

Desmond

For starters, she believes — as do many — that a holiday in the middle of Black History Month should logically honour someone of African descent. And that the holiday’s name should more broadly recognize those who’ve “fought for social justice.”The new, rotating, something-for-everyone holiday will do neither.

It’s too bad. The new provincial government had the opportunity to at least try to be a shadow as courageous as Viola Desmond. It failed.

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Copyright 2014 Stephen Kimber

Mandela, Rocky and the whitewashing of heroes

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What a difference a few decades make.

The world has spent the last week rightly celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man one letter writer to The New York Times summed up as a “universal champion of freedom, humanity and equality, and as an ardent proponent of tolerance, compassion and forbearance.”

Last week, Nova Scotia’s Human Rights Commission announced it will rename its individual human rights award. The Dr. Burnley Allan (Rocky) Jones Human Rights Award will recognize — rightly again — the late Nova Scotia civil rights leader who devoted his life to “the fight for justice… social justice… equity [for] anyone who experienced any form of discrimination.”

What gets swept to the darkened recesses in these legitimate and long overdue recognitions, however, is an un-whitewash-able reality: neither man shied from the belief that armed struggle was sometimes a necessary means to their just ends.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison, largely for refusing to renounce violence in the fight to end apartheid. Jones brought members of the militant Black Panthers to Halifax in the late 1960s.

Many of those eulogizing them now tried to undermine them then.

In the case of Mandela, the Canadian government’s Indian Affairs department helped the South African government perfect its apartheid system in the 1940s, while the American CIA showed South African police where to find and arrest Mandela in 1962.

As for Jones, back in the sixties, Halifax city fathers lobbied the federal government to close Kwacha House, the drop-in centre for inner city youth Jones had helped create. The RCMP targeted him as a dangerous radical and harassed him for decades, ultimately compiling a file that would run to thousands of pages.

I mention this not simply to point out the sanitizing hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies this retrospective mythologizing of our heroes. Mandela and Jones were both special individuals whose humanity and compassion transcended the details of their life stories.

But who are our Mandelas and Joneses today?

The young people of the Occupy movement?

The prisoners at Guantanamo?

The protesters standing up against fracking in New Brunswick?…

Will our grandchildren honour them as heroes 50 years from now?

If so, why are we so quick to vilify them now?

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

The Chris Brown conundrum

It’s complicated.

I know who Chris Brown is, of course, in a can’t-avoid-it-if-I-tried, popular culture way. I know he and his girlfriend Rihanna skipped scheduled Grammy appearances in 2009 on the heels of an incident in which Brown “hit, bit and choked” her. I saw, without seeking out, the online photo of her battered face.

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I know Brown was charged with domestic violence and felony battery, convicted and sentenced to five years probation, more than 1,400 hours in “labor-oriented service” and domestic abuse counseling.

I know there have been related/unrelated incidents: an ongoing blood feud with some guy named Drake, a hit-and-run accident…

I also know Brown and Rihanna resumed their romance early this year but that the on-again-off-again relationship strobe light went off yet again in May. Still?

I know all that, but I’m not sure I’d recognize Chris Brown’s music. I am sure I wouldn’t go across the street, or to Alderney Landing on Aug. 31, to discover it.

That said, I’m not clear how I feel about the demands to cancel his concert, the online petitions, the sponsor pullouts, the mayoral pile-on.

On the one hand, there is no more democratic way to express your disapproval of a performer’s actions than to vote with your ticket-buying feet. And there is certainly nothing wrong with asking others to do the same.

At the same time, the drumbeat demand to cancel his concert — denying pleasure to those who see this as a musical event rather than a teachable moment — seems to me to smack of censorship.

There is the whiff of hypocrisy too. Why Chris Brown and not, say, Sean Penn, who reportedly used a baseball bat on Madonna’s head back in 1987? Is it because Penn’s transgressions took place before the emergence of the social media echo chamber? Or because Penn is white? Is there an unspoken, unconscious racism at play?

Then too, there is the troubling, to me at least, New Morality that wants to single out a piece of the personal life of public figures — musicians, politicians, historical figures — and make that the sole litmus test for the legitimacy of their public careers. Who wants to throw that first perfection stone?

On the other hand…

Like I said, I find it complicated. 

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

The Home for Coloured Children: Time to Muzzle the Lawyers

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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.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

Still no Desmond Day… or any day to honour African Nova Scotians

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Another February. Another African Heritage Month. Another plaintive plea—from me and a few lonely others—for an official day to honour Viola Desmond’s contribution to the human rights movement in Canada.

On Nov. 8, 1946, Desmond, a pioneering black businesswoman from Halifax, found herself stuck in New Glasgow overnight. She decided to see a movie. The Dark Mirror, starring one of her favorite actresses, Olivia de Haviland, was playing at the Roseland Theatre. She sat, by chance, in a whites-only section. Informed she would have to move, Desmond refused. She was dragged from the theatre, clapped in jail, hauled before a magistrate, tried without benefit of a lawyer, summarily convicted of failing to pay a one-cent (!) amusement tax and fined $20.

Although an appeal of her conviction ultimately failed on a technically, Desmond’s spontaneous, principled stand helped energize the not-over-yet fight for equal rights in this province —nine years before Rosa Parks equally symbolic refusal to sit in her “proper” place on a bus is credited with sparking the American civil rights movement.

Desmond’s importance has belatedly begun to be acknowledged. In 2010, the Nova Scotia government publicly apologized and officially pardoned her for her “crime.”

That same year, a Tory backbencher introduced a motion in the legislature to make Nov. 8 Viola Desmond Day. The bill passed second reading.

And then…

Nothing.

African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Percy Paris disappeared the bill into the black hole of “community consultation”—not on how best to honour Desmond but on the generically correct issue of “how to establish a lasting form of recognition that would honour the contributions and experiences of African Nova Scotians.”

No one seems quite certain what happened after that, except there is still no day to honour Desmond… or any other African Nova Scotian civil rights pioneer.

“We have an apology, a pardon and a Canada postage stamp,” notes Ron Caplan, the Cape Breton historian who published a book about Desmond written by her sister and continues to champion the idea of a Viola Desmond Day. “We have two books and we even have annual celebrations of a Viola Desmond Day at [Toronto’s] Ryerson University.” But we still don’t have our own, teachable-moment Viola Desmond Day here in Nova Scotia.

It’s past time.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber

Shocked and appalled stocking stuffer

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With the pre-holiday spate of comment-worthy local news and the upcoming holiday absence of venue to vent my inevitable shocked-and-appalled-at-it-all spleen, today’s column will be an assorted stocking stuffer.

No charges in Home for Coloured Children investigation: I’m less shocked than I’d like. But winning convictions when allegations date back decades, involve children and include little documentary evidence is difficult, perhaps impossible.

That makes the ongoing class action suit—where the burdens of proof are different—even more significant for the victims, and a full public inquiry vital for all of us.

Who was responsible for creating the conditions that allowed such abuse to continue unchecked? What role did racism play in the lack of official oversight or interest when children came forward with allegations? What can we learn?

It’s time the provincial government did the right thing.

Swastikas, anti-Semitism and the Atlantic Jewish Council: A few protesters at a recent anti-war rally outside the Halifax International Security Forum carried posters with images of swastikas, equating Israeli attacks on Gaza with Hitler’s Nazis.

Atlantic Jewish Council Executive Director Jon Goldberg was right to condemn the comparison as anti-Semitism. “And any attempt to hold Jews collectively responsible for political actions of the state of Israel,” he added, “is anti-Semitism.”

Would that groups like the AJC were equally quick to condemn North American Jewish groups’ often knee-jerk invocations of anti-Semitism when anyone criticizes Israel for its attacks on Palestinians.

Province buys Bowater lands: The Dexter government has completed a complex deal to purchase 550,000 acres of former Bowater Mersey assets for $1, assume employee pension liabilities, resell a Bowater biomass power plant and transform the mill into an innovative clean energy centre.

It appears to be a smart long-term investment protecting our forests, providing employment and creating rural development opportunities. Win, win, win. Finally.

Savage speaks: Speaking last week to the Chamber of Commerce, new Mayor Mike Savage talked about everything from the role of universities in our economy to revitalizing downtown Halifax with an iconic legacy project to replace the Cogswell Street Interchange white elephant.

“This is not a building we’re talking about,” he declared, “this is a community. This is huge.”

Vision from a Halifax mayor?

Wow. No wonder Savage got a standing O.

Happy holidays to all.

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Copyright 2012 Stephen Kimber

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