Still no school for Africville (July 26, 2007)

Another legacy of Africville

I had called Tom McInnis, Nova Scotia’s deputy premier during the last days of the Buchanan era, to ask him a question. In December 1991, McInnis had announced — to great fanfare and applause — that the province would rebuild Seaview United Baptist Church on the site of the former Africville. It appeared at the time to be an important symbolic step in righting the historic wrong done more than 20 years earlier in razing that poor-but-proud black community on the shores of Bedford Basin.

I wanted to ask McInnis what he thought about the reality that today — 16-and-a-half years later — the church still isn’t built.

The answer I got turned out to be less about the church — McInnis had understandable difficulties recalling the specifics of that long ago announcement — and much more about the profound effect the Africville experience had on other Nova Scotia black communities, not to mention on a neophyte politician named Tom McInnis.

When McInnis was first elected MLA for Halifax Eastern Shore in 1978, his sprawling riding included most of the Prestons, the largest indigenous black community in Canada. But McInnis — a country boy from Sheet Harbour at the other end of the constituency who had become a successful downtown lawyer — knew very little of the black districts in his riding. In fact, he says he was discouraged from even staging rallies there during his campaign. “There was a lot of anger, a lot of hostility,” he says now.

After he was elected, a number of key Preston leaders — including then-county councillor Arnold Johnson and local matriarchs Noreen Smith and Viola Cain — took the young white politician aside and informed him he needed to stop thinking of the Prestons as another election campaign-stop-photo-op and actually spend some time there to see for himself its strengths and its needs.

“So on a foggy Monday night, they put me in a car and drove me around.” McInnis laughs. “A wake up? I guess it was. Noreen really woke me up.”

During that first visit, McInnis discovered Preston had no municipal sewer and water services and, too often, open wells sat dangerously close to outdoor toilets in the rocky soil.

One of the ostensible reasons for wiping Africville off the map in the sixties, of course, had been that it didn’t have proper sewer and water services. The city claimed at the time that it would be too expensive to provide them, but the city ended up spending more relocating the community than it would have providing basic services the residents had been demanding for generations.

By the time McInnis was first elected, “Remember Africville” had become a rallying crying in black communities all over Nova Scotia. Including especially in the Prestons, where the same arguments were being made against providing its residents with water, even though, as McInnis himself says, “In North Preston, you could spit and hit watershed.

“Africville,” he recalls, “was mentioned a lot that night.”

It was the beginning. “Go to North Preston today and look at it,” McInnis suggests now. “It’s a wonderful community. And there’s water and sewer in every home.”

He is careful not to claim credit. “This wasn’t driven by Tom McInnis. It was driven by people in that community who made it happen.” People who were determined not to allow their community to be another Africville.

Their determination changed McInnis too. Even though he’s been out of politics for nearly 15 years, he says he still occasionally visits with friends back in the Prestons. And he says one of the many lessons he learned from his visits over the years is just how important the institution of the church is in Nova Scotia’s black communities.

So why does he think the church he promised the former residents of Africville has never been built?

“When was that again?” he asks me.

“Nineteen ninety one.”

“Let me think,” he pauses. “We were defeated in ’93…”

It isn’t clear, perhaps even to McInnis now, whether rebuilding the church was just one of those too-easy, vote-seeking promises made by a government already in desperate political trouble, or whether it was a genuine commitment that got derailed after the government was replaced.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

“The church was important,” McInnis says simply. “It should have been built.”

It should.

As the former residents of Africville come together at Seaview Park this week for their annual celebration and remembrance of their gone-but-never-forgotten community, we can only hope we’re not still talking about rebuilding the church 16 years from now.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His 2006 novel, Reparations, includes a fictionalized account of the Africville relocation and its reverberations today. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.

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