El Jones is an assistant professor in the department of Political and Canadian Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax.
On Oct. 29, news emerged in Nova Scotia that Progressive Conservative Premier Tim Houston had fired a political staffer from the Justice department because of racist comments made on Snapchat about newly elected Liberal MLA Angela Simmonds. Mr. Houston’s swift action in firing the staffer was perhaps motivated by the heavy criticisms the new Premier faced from the African Nova Scotian community in early September when he announced his Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs would be a white man.
At the same time as that appointment, Mr. Houston dismissed two prominent Black women from their positions. Dr. Késa Munroe-Anderson, a deputy minister in the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, was purged alongside other deputy ministers and replaced with a white man; Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, the first ever Black person appointed to the Nova Scotia Health Board of Directors was dismissed when the entire board was dissolved and replaced by a white leadership team.
It would be a mistake to view these events as isolated, contained to the provincial legislature, or solely involving the political classes. Rather, they are a reflection of the deep and historical political marginalization of the African Nova Scotian community. Despite the presence of anti-racism institutes, the number of reports addressing anti-Black racism in the province, and apologies and promises to do better, the incidents demonstrate how nothing much has changed for African Nova Scotians.
The uproar over the new government’s appointments and dismissals reflects how token gestures toward representation and diversity embraced by governments, universities and corporations in the wake of the killing of George Floyd do little to effect systemic change and shift power away from white institutions. One day, a premier can fire Black women. Another day, he can stand up and denounce racism by staff. In either case, the community remains at the mercy of the political calculations of those who view Black people either as a problem to be suppressed or as a tool to be used, and then discarded.
And that holds true regardless of which political party holds power. Consider the provincial Liberals: now that they are out of power, they introduced legislation aimed at dismantling racism. During their tenure, they held out against community calls to end police street checks, presided over a provincial jail system where Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately incarcerated, and appointed a former RCMP officer as the Minister of Justice. Power comes and goes, but anti-Black racism remains alive.
In order to form effective political resistance, African Nova Scotians can look to lessons from their past. In 1968, the late African Nova Scotian activist Burnley (Rocky) Jones invited African Nova Scotians from across the province to a “Black family meeting.” The meeting took place in the context of broader radical Black political advocacy in Canada: In October of that year, the Black Writers Congress was held in Montreal. A year later, in 1969, Black students would occupy the computer lab at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia.) In Halifax, the destruction of Africville and the divide-and-rule tactics used against the community brought home the need for a unified political voice for African Nova Scotians who are scattered in 50 communities across the province.
The Black family meeting led to the formation of the Black United Front (BUF). While Mr. Jones insisted BUF remain independent of government influences, others disagreed. BUF received government funding and survived as a neutered voice until it was disbanded in 1996, because of (inevitably) underfunding.
BUF remains both an inspiration and a cautionary tale for African Nova Scotians who do not accept being tossed to and fro according to political whims. The origin story of the group still serves as a template for political organizing in our communities today. Its demise is a reminder that Black groups dependent on government funding can just as easily be defunded when they no longer serve the purposes of power.
For African Nova Scotians and Black Canadians more broadly, we are, as we were in 1968, faced with a crossroads of sorts: We must decide if it is in our best interests to continue to struggle for representation and collaboration within the existing system, or whether it is time to build political organs of our own. But representative politics – a few Black faces in high places – have not brought the promised gains to all Black people. Nor has the funding advocated for in closed meetings between government representatives and chosen organizations trickled down to the majority of the Black community. The federal Liberals’ Black Entrepreneurship Loan Fund, for example, has been the subject of controversy as Black entrepreneurs question the limits of these programs.
The summer of 2020 saw a mass uprising in Canada that brought Black people out into the streets in protest. Those ordinary people did not come out for a few more seats at the table; they wanted an end to Black people being killed by police and to the substandard conditions of our lives that we have endured for far too long. We cannot settle for some token appointments, a few statements, and a pledge to do better some time in the future. We must organize at the grassroots outside the system for serious change.
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