Firing a staff member for racist comments is a start, but…

It’s clear the Houston government has more work to do when it comes to confronting racism in this province and repairing its relations with the Black community.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston fired an anonymous staffer in the Justice Department for social media comments about Angela Simmonds he says are racist.

The news late last week that a Tory staffer had been fired for making racist comments about Liberal MLA Angela Simmonds is interesting on a number of levels. First, of course, is that it happened at all. Not that the racist comments were made. But that they had consequences.

Apparently, the unidentified staffer, who worked in the justice department and had participated in meetings with Simmonds, exchanged messages with a friend on Snapchat in which the staffer claimed Simmonds didn’t know what she was talking about and that she was quick to “play the race card.”

It’s worth noting, even in passing and as an aside, that Simmonds, a lawyer, knows a thing or two about which she speaks.

Before becoming an MLA in this summer’s election and then being elected the province’s first Black deputy speaker, Simmonds — “recently acknowledged as one of the Top 100 Most Accomplished African Canadian Black Women in Canada in 2020” — served as the executive director of the province’s land titles initiative in the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism where she worked to “address the legacy of systemic racism in historic African Nova Scotian communities.”

Oh, and then there is also her very recent, very up-close-and-personal experience with racism in Nova Scotia. On July 4, 2021, she and her husband, Halifax Regional Police Superintendent Dean Simmonds, were driving to the grocery store when they were suddenly pulled over at gunpoint by officers in two RCMP vehicles who claimed to be investigating a shooting in North Preston.

Driving while Black, anyone?

The Simmonds have filed a formal complaint about what happened to them.

Back to the latest incident. It’s not clear how, but Houston learned about the staffer’s social media comments about Simmonds. “Taken aback,” he says he immediately fired the staffer and then arranged a meeting with Simmonds and Liberal leader Iain Rankin to tell them personally what had happened and what he had done about it.

“There is zero tolerance for any type of inappropriate behaviour,” Houston explained in an interview later.

It was clearly the right thing to do. But it has become even more right — and more urgent — in light of the Houston government’s out-of-the-gate stumbles on the issue of race. Perhaps because the Tories didn’t elect a single Black MLA, Houston failed to appreciate how his appointment of a 70-year-old white guy as the cabinet minister for the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs would be received by the community. And then he made it even worse by firing the office’s Liberal appointed Black deputy minister and replacing her with yet another white him.

Houston has — rightly — been in damage control ever since, apologizing, adding a Black associate deputy minister to the African Nova Scotian affairs office and promising to consult with the community going forward.

In September, his new justice minister, Brad Johns, publicly expressed his disappointment with the RCMP’s refusal to apologize for its use of police street checks, which are now banned in Nova Scotia. He said it will be one of the subjects “we’re going to have to have a discussion about” as the province considers its policing contract with the province, which expires in 2022.

Meanwhile, Johns also promised in the legislature last week to close a loophole in the current ban that allows police to continue employing street checks under the guise of “investigating suspicious activity.” Johns said a ministerial directive to eliminate that escape hatch was almost ready for prime time but that he wanted to meet with representatives of the Black community first to make sure he’s got it right.

One can understand, given that recent history, the government is nervous about taking any unilateral action. But consultation can easily turn into delay and inaction.

Simmonds told reporters last week that the government already knows — or should know — the Black community’s views, thanks to recommendations from groups like Decade for People of African Descent.

“This isn’t anything new,” she told reporters. “What’s new is that we represent the voices in the House.”

Representation matters.

But how much?

We may have a better idea after we see how the government responds to the “Dismantling Racism and Hate Act,” which the Liberals introduced in the House to little fanfare earlier this month.

Simmonds, who is her party’s critic on racism and equity, says the bill will:

  • define racism and hate in law,
  • require public consultations between government and marginalized communities to “identify barriers” that get in the way of achieving equity,
  • mandate government departments and crown corporations to “develop action plans to remove those discriminatory barriers within their organizations.”

“This isn’t a reactionary bill,” Simmonds explained in a party release. “This is about defining and addressing racism and discrimination in this province, no matter who is in government.”

So far, Houston isn’t committing to supporting the Liberals’ bill though he said he agrees with its intent. According to the premier, the provincial Office of Equity and Anti-Racism is already drafting similar legislation that might include elements of the Liberal bill, but it won’t be ready for this session of the House.

Consultation? Delay?

“We just need to make sure that we do the work to get it right [before] we move forward,” Houston told reporters.

We need more than just words about the work still to be done. We need action. It’s past time.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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