When Victor Carvery tries to describe his Africville, he becomes almost lyrical. “Freedom, liberty, love, joy, peace, tranquility,” he begins softly, then takes a sip of his tea. “Africville was the whole nine yards.”
Nothing that has happened in Victor Carvery’s life beyond the boundaries of Africville — the tiny black community on the edge of Bedford Basin where he grew up in the years before do-gooder urban renewal bulldozed it off the face of the earth— has ever come remotely close to matching the sweet, simple joy of having lived in a place where people still cared about one other. And that, if you want to know the truth, is probably the real reason why Victor Carvery is sitting in this cramped little trailer beside the harbor on this snowy-wet Saturday morning.
Last July, Victor and his brother Eddie set up a makeshift camp here in what used to be Africville (“where we’re sitting is where our house was”) but is now an urban green space known as Seaview Park.
They pitched tents, raised flags, eventually rigged up a couple of old trailers and settled in for the winter — “for forever if we need to” _— accompanied by their dogs, Princess and Trucker, their cats, Snowflake and Flakey, not to forget their grievances and their dreams.
Victor and Eddie have vowed to stay here until the City of Halifax agrees to compensate former Africville residents for taking their land. Or agrees to call an independent public inquiry into the real reasons why the community was relocated. Or agrees to establish a monorail station and winter carnival to provide employment for former residents on the Africville site.
The sometimes confusing specifics of their demands, however, are ultimately less important than what their mere presence represents.
Their mere presence makes city fathers nervous.
It is not only a nagging reminder of a never resolved, decades old dispute but it is also a ticking time bomb that could blow up into a world-wide embarrassment for the city if some of the thousands of reporters who descend on Halifax this summer for the G-7 summit decide to ask questions about why two black men are camping out in the middle of a park in the middle of the city.
So the city wants them out. Now. City Council will vote later this week on an innocuous-sounding proposal to ban camping in city parks, a move that is aimed specifically at the Carverys, whom most aldermen regard as squatters.
“We’re not no squatters,” Victor retorts angrily. “This is our home. 1833 Barrington Street. That was our address. Right where we’re sitting. This is our land. Case closed.”
Victor, who was born in 1949, is the eighth of 10 Carvery children. Three died in childhood — an older brother was run over by a truck on its way to the dump the city established on the edge of the community, while a set of twins died because of what Victor calls “the conditions.”
As a child, those conditions — the lack of city sewer, water and other services, along with the presence of a dump and an abattoir and virtually every other undesirable facility no one else wanted in their backyard — were less important than the sense of place and freedom he felt here.
“We used to go out fishing in the boats,” he begins, the memories tumbling out over one another, warm and easy. “We’d have bonfires at night, boil mussels on the shore. My dad would catch fish and then go round the village and give them away. . . Oh, yeh, just give them away. Wintertime, he’d go around and visit the elders, make sure they had wood in, make sure their buckets were filled. On the (railroad) crossing, spring and summer, we’d all sit up there with our old guitars and play and sing. People come with tin cans, buckets, everything. (Well-known drummer) Gary Steed used to play. He grew up just over there on the hill. He’s younger than me. But I knew him. You knew everyone then. And everyone’s home, well . . . everyone’s home was your home. If you needed the car to go into town, you’d just go into the house and take the keys hanging there. You didn’t have to ask.” He stops for another sip of tea. “If you were low on money, you could go to the store, get what you need. Then when the money came in, you could pay your bills. That was just the way it was then.”
Beyond Africville, however, the world Victor Carvery encountered was not nearly as kind.
Victor attended Mulgrave Park (now Highland Park) elementary school in north-end Halifax. “If you reached a certain grade,” he explains, “you’d go on to Richmond (junior high).”
Victor, who recently obtained his Grade 12 General Equivalency Diploma, never made it that far in public school. He spent four years in Mrs. Norman’s Grade 3 class before being shunted off to Bloomfield’s “auxiliary class” where, like a lot of black children, he says he was told, “’You’re stupid. You’re here to be quiet.’ They’d let you do shop and there was skating and dancing, but no kind of education at all.”
Victor was 17 when the city moved his family and the other 400 residents out of Africville. “It was degrading, disrespectful, ” he says now. “They tore down the church at 3 o’clock in the morning. Three o’clock in the morning? And $15,000 (compensation) for a church? Come on!”
While his parents and younger siblings, including brother Irvine who now heads up the Africville Genealogy Society, relocated to a row house on a barren stretch of Bedford Row, Victor opted to go to sea, working and living on a variety of vessels ranging from sealing ships — “I only lasted one trip; I didn’t like killing seals” — to tug boats.
He says he was about to get his union card — and a permanent job working on the tug boats — when union thugs attacked him one night on the way to a union meeting. “They hit me in the face with a 2-by-4 with a big nail in it. They said, ‘Hey, nigger, you’re not getting into this union.’”
The day after that beating, Carvery claims the tugboat company fired him for being a troublemaker.
On land he drifted in and out of jobs, and in and out of trouble, During the seventies, he ended up Uniacke Square where many former Africville residents had been relocated. “It was like a concentration camp. I ended up getting introduced to speed there. It almost killed me.” He looks at me. “Is that my compensation?” he asks. “Speed? Drugs? Is that my compensation? Alcohol? No education? Someone has to pay for all the lives that were lost.”
Carvery says he began to get his own life back together after he landed a job as a cleaner at Camp Hill Hospital. “I got to know the vets, people who fought for our country, side-by-side, black and white, it didn’t matter. They were real gentlemen, And they encouraged me, gave me a fresh new start, said that if I believe something is right I should go for it.”
In 1977, he joined the Canadian Coast Guard. “I was there 11 years,” he says, pausing for effect. “As a casual. Can you believe that, man? All those years. And always a casual.”
Carvery says the Coast Guard, which is currently under fire for alleged discrimination against its black employees, was a difficult place to work even then. “Every day on those ships was total fear, total paranoia,” he says. “There were always people threatening you — ‘You won’t see daylight, nigger!’ ‘We’re going to castrate you, we’re going to poison you.’”
The ugliness came to a head for him, he says, during the last leg of a voyage around the Arctic circle. Three of the four blacks who’d begun the trip had quit or been fired, leaving Carvery as the only black man aboard the vessel. He got into a dispute with two white crew members, one of whom had called him a nigger. “They pulled a knife on me,” Carvery says now, adding that he believes the fight “was a set-up” to get rid of him.
The day after the altercation, the captain called Carvery into his quarters and informed him “he was sending me home — for the safety of the crew.” Nothing happened to the whites involved in the dispute. “The captain said to me, ‘A lot of people don’t appreciate you.’”
Carvery, who couldn’t read, was asked to sign a paper he claims the captain told him would help him get a job aboard another ship when he got back to Nova Scotia. “So I signed it. But when I got back to Dartmouth and I gave (a Coast Guard official) the letter, the guy started laughing. I said, "What are you laughing about?’ He said, ‘Vic, you resigned, man. Look right here. You quit.’” He pauses. “I never worked since.”
He tried starting a painting business, he says, but “the cartilage went in my leg.”
Frustrated and at loose ends, he finally found his purpose in life almost by accident last summer. “I was talking to some guys in the congregation (he’s a member of Halifax’s Revival Tabernacle Church), and I said, ‘Why don’t we go out home and put up a couple of tents.” The summer’s annual Africville Reunion weekend was just winding down when they arrived. “When everyone else left, I said, ‘I’m staying.’”
He and his brother Eddie have been here ever since, their spur-of-the-moment decision now a symbolic protest against decades of injustice. Although they’ve had occasional visits from the police and although the fire department has been by twice to put out open fires, Carvery says they’ve had “good support” from most people. “The black community supports us. The white community supports us.” To prove his point, he hands me a clipboard filled with signed petitions opposing city plans to force them to leave.
“I could sit here forever,” he says contentedly.
He says it’s rarely boring these days. His wife and two daughters (he has three other children from a previous relationship) stop by regularly to offer support and encouragement. “And we get lots of kids who come down to see us, especially during Black History Month. I gave them a history lesson,” he says proudly, handing me a note book in which the history of blacks in Halifax has been carefully written up. “I looked it up in the archives, read the history books, worked to educate myself about these things,” he explains.
He is also keeping a detailed journal of his experiences at the camp. “See here,” he says flipping through the pages. “This guy, Stephen somebody from City Parks. He came to see me one day just after we got here, and he says we got to tear it down. I say. ‘Wait a minute. This is Africville. This is my home.’ And then I said to him, ‘Can I borrow your cell phone?’ ‘What for?’ he wants to know. ‘ So I tell him, ‘I’m gonna call the police and have them come out and throw you off my land. He left pretty quick then.”
He gets up, his slight frame suddenly filling the cramped quarters of the trailer not just physically but emotionally too. “We’ve got to have an open inquiry. If the city council got nothing to hide — you write this down! — if the city council got nothing to hide, they’ll agree to have an inquiry so we can find out who was really responsible for allowing such a thing to happen, how they were allowed to destroy a community.”
Victor Carvery’s community.