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Racism's long history in quiet East Coast towns

For years, most black people in New Glasgow lived along Vale Road and its side streets, Ghana and Brother Street Extension. It was the kind of place where children would address their elders as uncle or auntie, skate on a pond in the winter and pick blueberries in the summer among the bushes that separated them from the big department store nearby.

To many of their white neighbours, though, Vale Road was just "Nigger Hill."

Today, in this town of 9,000 a couple of hours from Halifax, a mere allusion to the name triggers a visceral reaction among the few hundred black residents: "To us, even just 'The Hill' is exactly like saying the N-word," says Henderson Paris, bristling as he drives among the neighbourhood's well-kept wooden houses.

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Mr. Paris also recalls being on the production line of the local Michelin Tires plant in January, 1990, when his son, Jeremy, was badly beaten at a college in nearby Stellarton. About 100 of the boy's white peers watched while another student beat him, yelling slurs.

Jeremy recovered and eventually moved to Bermuda. Hennie Paris, as the father is known around town, was motivated to start an annual anti-racism run and eventually become a town councillor.

As he drives, continually waving to white constituents, Mr. Paris doesn't like to talk about the past. Things are much better now in New Glasgow, he says, turning down Washington Street. He points at a grey two-storey apartment building where he was refused housing in the 1980s, when the landlord told him neighbours wouldn't appreciate living with a black family.

That wouldn't happen now, Mr. Paris says. And even then, the landlord succumbed to pressure. "We didn't give up. Others intervened, he eventually gave us the place," he says. "You can't say progress hasn't been made."

Mr. Paris's sister, Cherry Paris, who spent the 1970s and 1980s working for the provincial Human Rights Commission, agrees. The schools are much less fraught with tension lately, she says. And: "At least we don't get yelled at by whites when we walk down the sidewalk any more."

A TROUBLED HISTORY, DISTINCT IN CANADA

It may sound like a modest gain, but measures of progress can be like that for blacks in Nova Scotia.

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Across Canada, tensions exist over race and ethnicity, immigration and aboriginal rights. But no other region on this side of the 49th parallel has Nova Scotia's long history of a black-and-white divide.



Until the immigration reforms of the 1960s, 37 per cent of Canadian blacks lived in Nova Scotia. Today, its black population of 19,200 is smaller than the numbers in each of the largest cities. But no other place in Canada has so many black communities still living in de facto segregation. Nowhere else in Canada does the legacy of slavery remain so tangible, as much as mainstream white society tries to block it out.

"We are Canada's largest indigenous black population, and our history sets us apart and makes us unique. Nova Scotia blacks, in fact, have been treated a lot worse," says Donald Oliver, a Nova Scotia Conservative senator and lawyer. "People are very afraid to talk about it, they want it buried under the carpet."

The remnants of that history can be as subtle as a suspicious glance in a corner store or the cavalier placement of a dog park or garbage dump on top of a poor community. At other times, racism flares up more dramatically, evoking places far south of Canada's Ocean Playground.

Earlier this spring in Windsor Junction, Ku Klux Klan graffiti was plastered outside the riding office of Percy Paris, a provincial cabinet minister who happens to be black.

And the entire country gasped last month when an interracial couple an hour away from Halifax announced they were moving to an undisclosed location to protect their five children in the aftermath of a cross-burning.

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The only black man in pastoral Poplar Grove in Hants County, Shayne Howe woke to the glare of that burning cross on his front lawn one night in February, while the perpetrators shouted threats and taunts. Then, last month, when one of the two brothers charged was due in court, the family car was torched, destroying the entire interior, including a new child-safety seat.

Sporting diamonds in his earlobes and a baseball cap perched on his head, Mr. Howe is a descendant of the original black settlers, Loyalists and ex-slaves who came to Nova Scotia in the 1780s. He mixes paint one sunny afternoon in their grey bungalow to prepare for the sale of his family's house, which backs onto a vast, green hay field.

He'll miss simple pleasures there, he says - riding his lawn mower, beer in hand, or skinny-dipping under cover of darkness in the backyard pool.

"I was comfortable before. People seemed okay with me," says Mr. Howe, a 31-year-old truck driver, recalling his relief when a local shop owner stopped keeping watch on him whenever he dropped in for a carton of milk.

Because the alleged cross-burners are distant cousins of his wife, Michelle Lyon, many people around town dismiss the incident as a family feud. But Ms. Lyon says she had never met the brothers before.

A venomous Facebook page with more than 100 supporters has popped up to back one of the alleged firebugs, where residents of nearby Windsor and Halifax throw around the N-word while condemning the couple as publicity hounds.



You bury this stuff, dig as deep as you can, and put on a polite face But you can't bury everything under the rug, I guess. Shayne Howe


Indeed, that fraught heritage can seem close to the surface when you know where to look. Rev. Russell Daye, a minister at St. Andrew's United Church in Halifax, earned his doctorate in comparative ethics studying racial reconciliation in places such as South Africa and Fiji. "I was away 21 years," he says, "and when I came back, I was really stunned by how much this city is defined by race. It really looks more like U.S. cities than other Canadian cities like Montreal or Toronto."

However, he says he also sees "clear efforts to overcome the racial divide." Recently, for example, the Halifax Regional Municipality made an apology and pledged reparations for the 1960s-era bulldozing of the Africville settlement.

But some gestures go down better than others. The province recently offered a "pardon" to Viola Desmond, often called Canada's Rosa Parks, who was arrested in 1946 for sitting in the "white" section of a New Glasgow movie theatre. Black leaders pointed out that a pardon may not be the most apt recognition for a woman who did nothing wrong. Viola Desmond Day's declaration was put on hold.

"There are a lot of white people in this city who carry the stories of having witnessed African Nova Scotians getting the screws put to them," says Mr. Daye, who is white. "There is all kinds of goodwill.

"But there is so much history to overcome."

FOLLOW THE TRAIL OF BROKEN PLEDGES

Contrary to the image many Canadians hold dear, slavery was practised here from the 1600s into the early 1800s. Africans were dragged along in chains with the earliest British and French arrivals, who also enslaved natives.

Still, most of Nova Scotia's black community was founded by Loyalists who had fought for Britain (in return for their freedom) in the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s, or who became refugees after the War of 1812.

Later, as every Canadian school child learns, Nova Scotia was one of the destinations of the Underground Railroad, the heroic effort to rescue U.S. slaves. Fewer people know how pre-Confederation British governors and their Canadian successors reneged on promises of decent land to the Loyalist blacks. They faced segregation and economic persecution. Canada's first race riot took place in 1784 when impoverished whites drove blacks from Shelburne and tore down their houses.

Many returned to the United States after Emancipation. A few hundred even went to Africa. Most were simply pushed into the hills by the white establishment. Right into the 1960s, they endured Jim Crow laws and segregation, much like blacks in the deep South.

Like Southern blacks, Afro Nova Scotians emerged from the 1800s with unusually high rates of land ownership for a disenfranchised people. And while U.S. blacks lost their farms during Reconstruction, many black Nova Scotians held on to their scrubby plots.

But when they settled in Guysborough County in 1783, the ancestors of the residents of Lincolnville and nearby Upper Big Tracadie were promised 3,000 choice acres near the water, where they could grow crops and fish.

Today they still live on a small fraction of the acreage, with plenty of rocks, clay and bush, miles from the nearest ocean or open field. In fact, instead of viable land to farm or run cattle, the black community got a garbage dump.

GETTING DUMPED ON, IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE

About 250 kilometres northeast of Halifax, the massive landfill near Lincolnville will probably endure long after the last family has left the dying village. The windows of James Desmond's small bungalow rattle as garbage trucks rumble past from Cape Breton and more than a dozen northern Nova Scotia counties.

Mr. Desmond has been fighting the dump since the beginning, 40 years ago. Fearing contaminants, he fought the last major expansion in 2006, and is still fighting his lost cause. He now seeks compensation for the 50 residents of his fading town, and tries to make sure a potential tire-recycling plant goes elsewhere.



We've put up with it for 30 years. Now, it's someone else's turn," James Desmond


"I'm all in favour of doing something about these first-generation dumps, these environmental disasters. But it shouldn't be in our backyard," Mr. Desmond adds.

Lincolnville is far from the only black Nova Scotian community haunted by refuse. A study in the 1990s found that 30 per cent of Afro-Canadians in the province live within five kilometres of a dump. Several of the biggest black communities have fought off landfill relocations in the past decade.

Lloyd Hines, the white warden of Guysborough County, says race had nothing to do the dump's placement. "It was located based on the greatest scientific evidence of the day, the type of soil in place. It had nothing to do with the fact the Lincolnville community was nearby. It's as simple as that."

But racial dynamics are subtler than that, even in a country where they're often given little thought. "People just don't understand the concept of white privilege," says Rhonda Britton. She sees all around her the way members of the majority are blind to their own inherent, unfair advantage.

A Florida native, she came to Nova Scotia from New York, settling first in New Glasgow and then Halifax, where she became a pastor at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church. When she arrived in New Glasgow in 2003, a new high school was opening that combined black and white New Glasgow students with white children from three smaller towns. Three years of name-calling and schoolyard brawls ensued.

Then there was the time she was congratulated for her mastery of the English language at an otherwise all-white meeting of ministers. Ms. Britton holds two PhDs and spent 20 years as a systems analyst before turning to the ministry.

"I would have expected things to be better here," she says. "I was told, 'In Canada, we're all Canadians.' I was quite surprised to find racial tensions instead."

Mr. Daye, who is encouraging his white, upper-class suburban congregation to reach out to Ms. Britton's black, inner-city church, remains hopeful. But overall, he adds, "there's a reluctance to speak openly in Nova Scotia. It's a Maritime trait in general and is on display with these issues."

Halifax radio host Andrew Krystal says that when he opens the lines on his talk station, he hears nasty hints of his mostly white listeners' beliefs in blacks' inferiority and so-called griping. In general, though, they "tend to be quite cagey about their views," he says, as they know he is sympathetic to the black plight.

Yet Mr. Krystal, who hails from Toronto, also points out that the white majority in Nova Scotia harbours its own legitimate set of grievances.

Many Maritimers feel they have received a raw deal, from Confederation down to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which allowed the industrialization of the baby-boom era to pass them by. The region has chronically fewer jobs and lower incomes than most of Canada.

"Nova Scotians got punked by central Canadian power politics. And because of their own economic marginalization, they don't particularly want to hear about anybody else's shit," Mr. Krystal says.

He adds that "monochrome Nova Scotia's problem with race isn't that different from what you'd find in the white person from Barrie or the 905 [area code in Ontario]or the Frenchman from Laval."

STILL MOURNING A PLACE THEY CALLED HOME

Mr. Krystal used his radio platform to push for an apology and reparations for the notorious Africville demolition. "Maritimers have a much more romantic sense of place than most Canadians. Blacks are no different when it comes to Africville," he says.

Initially started as a rural settlement by black Loyalists around 1815, Africville remained a black community as Halifax grew up around it and a railway was run through it.

Over its 155-year history, it never got proper water, sewage, roads, electricity or health services. By the 1960s, the installation of a garbage dump helped mark the end. When it was appropriated by the city for industrial uses and its close-knit community of 400 dispersed and relocated to private and public housing, all the promises of generous compensation and social support once again came to very little - the city choosing to wipe the slate clean and forget the place it considered a slum.

This February, along with an apology, officials promised to rebuild Africville's central Seaview African Baptist Church as a memorial site, funded by millions of dollars.



The black community was treated less than respectfully, Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly


"We certainly would not conduct business that way now," Mayor Perry says. "But we must own up to the errors of the past."

Meanwhile, the site remains a monument to disrespect. A dog park sits where Africville once did, and the massive A. Murray MacKay Bridge as well as an onramp, a railway line and massive electricity-transmission towers cut the Seaview Memorial Park in three.

Dressed in a Che Guevara T-shirt, 60-year-old Eddie Carvery is a well-known face who has been camped out down here for the past 16 years, protecting what he considers a sacred trust, even as broken wine bottles collect under an iron sign that marks the spot where the church once stood.

He is one of a handful of dissidents who oppose the Africville settlement, demanding personal compensation for his grandmother's lost land.

"It was always going to be collective reparations," says Irvine Carvery, Eddie's brother and his opponent. The Halifax municipal-housing director, who negotiated the deal as head of the Africville Genealogical Society, is a rising leader in the black community, though his critics accuse him of opportunism. Outside of this issue, he says, he and his brother get along fine.

"This settlement doesn't stop others from hiring a lawyer and suing the city. But a lot of these people are waiting for others to do it."

A RISING PROFESSIONAL CLASS - UP TO A POINT

Mr. Carvery isn't one to wait. Born in Africville and then raised in a housing project, he became a senior city bureaucrat and recently won election as the city's first black school-board president. All around Halifax are signs that black people such as him are slowly taking a greater role in politics and the economy.

Reports from the early 1980s pegged unemployment among Nova Scotia blacks around 50 per cent. That has dropped steadily, according to census results, to 20 per cent in 1996 and 11.8 per cent in 2006 - still three percentage points higher than Nova Scotia over all, but a far cry from 20 years ago, when it was double or triple; it's within one percentage point of the black employment rate in the rest of Canada.

A local business magazine brags of black entrepreneurs starting hair salons, restaurants and construction businesses. But progress often seems tempered by setbacks.

It's not uncommon to see a black firefighter dousing a blaze and Halifax has one of Canada's more diverse police forces, with 40 blacks among 523 officers. But both institutions were hit in the past year with human-rights complaints from black employees, claiming they face frequent racist taunts and are systematically passed over for promotions.



These things are constant reminders that we have to become better and get beyond some of the old ways. We're trying. We have to try harder. Mayor Kelly


Though the province boasts scores of black teachers, for example, in higher-paying professions the glass ceiling still glares. Twenty-one years after a special black and aboriginal law program was created, the Nova Scotia bar has only four black partners among 476 senior lawyers in legal firms. One black judge was appointed in the 1980s, one in the 1990s, and none since.

In 2008, the chief justice of Nova Scotia, Joseph Kennedy, told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald that the top judges in the province are still "a bunch of old, white guys."

Senator Donald Oliver, who spent 35 years in a Halifax law firm before Brian Mulroney appointed him to the Senate 20 years ago, offers the blunt assessment that as women and members of other visible minorities advance, blacks are being left behind: "The glass ceiling is getting thicker, closer, more difficult to break."

Mr. Oliver's family has had a history of breakthroughs, ever since his grandfather, William White, in the 19th-century became the second black man ever to get a degree from Acadia University. He can rattle off the psychological hurdles facing Nova Scotia blacks - poverty, the absence of role models, an inferiority complex, a historical "latent sense of slavery" - yet has a harder time explaining how his own clan, the only black family in Wolfville when he was growing up, jumped over them.

"There were problems, but Wolfville was an educated community, and it seemed if you had an education, you really were an equal in a sense," he says. "It's all very complex."

THE DOUBLE EDGE OF URBAN DEVELOPMENT

A half-hour drive away from the downtown Halifax church that was led by the preachers of the Oliver family, and is now led by Ms. Britton, sits an impoverished city neighbourhood that looks more like a Saskatchewan Indian reserve. Tidy bungalows sit alongside crumbling shacks fronted with smashed, rusting appliances.

North and East Preston are the heart of Canada's largest, longest-standing black settlement. After 230 years, North Preston's 4,100 residents are still 98 per cent black. Despite bad soil and isolation, the area has a proud history of survival.

Today, its mix of poor and working class families, a few professionals and unusually high levels of home ownership are creating an entirely new dynamic for what is essentially a countryside urban ghetto - rising property values. While people in Preston wrestle with persistent violence, increasing gunplay and other social plagues, a debate is emerging over the merits and the risks of gentrification.

Schoolteacher and activist Doug Sparks describes how his family's 28-acre parcel has been divided since his ancestor, a runaway slave named General Taylor, obtained it in 1816 as a reward for helping the British in the War of 1812. Now, with lots selling for up to $10,000 an acre, residents are feeling the pressure to cash in, he says. Families are being split in disputes over land.

From his kitchen, he points across the street to explain that one side of the road had its name changed from East Preston to Lake Echo. Rev. Richard Preston was a celebrated early leader in the black community, but as nearby white areas expand, the real-estate industry has concluded that his name does nothing for the neighbourhood's cachet.

Mr. Sparks, 44, describes the switch as a "subtle sort of racism." He fears his community will eventually get swallowed up by developers selling the joys of rural living a half-hour from downtown. "The African Nova Scotian community as a whole is going to disappear. That's what I'm seeing."

Back downtown, gentrification is putting a more traditional kind of pressure on another Halifax neighbourhood.

Uniake Square, the project where Irvine Carvery and many other former Africville residents grew up, is a tight-knit place (despite its derisive nickname "Maniac Square" among some Haligonians).

Today, the area is dotted with new co-op housing developments (starting at $128,000 for a one-bedroom) and flanked by tidy residential avenues.

Mr. Carvery figures the house he bought there for $15,000 in 1975 is worth at least 20 times that now. The transition he made from Uniake to owning his own home, he believes, would be nearly impossible now.

GOING FORWARD, CLASHING SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT

On a recent Sunday, in an old high-school gym, Mr. Carvery is officiating a men's adult basketball game. This basketball court is one place in Halifax where blacks rub elbows with white opponents.

"I can't say I haven't seen progress. I have," Mr. Carvery says during a break. "You just have to look around here. It may be a product of gentrification, but this is one of the more integrated neighbourhoods you'll see."

No. 26 on the court, a teacher named Wade Smith, is the vice-principal of Halifax West high school. It's "the most diverse school east of Montreal," he says. Everyone there gets along, he says, but he refuses to make sweeping judgments about progress.

Mr. Smith gained local notoriety in 2006 for suggesting a black school might help students stay in touch with their culture, just as a Jewish or Catholic school does.

He was roundly dismissed and, in a few cases, condemned as a segregationist, even though the same idea has gained traction in many places, including Toronto.

"It's 2010," he says. "There aren't race wars every five minutes, but it would be wishful thinking to believe race issues are gone. Hardly any time has passed at all. There's been not a real attempt to get at true equity since the civil-rights movement. We've only spent 40 years trying to rebuild something that took 500 years to destroy."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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