Op-ed, By David Shannon
I grew up in Dartmouth in the 1980s, where I attended schools where the names of Viola Desmond and Dr. Carrie Best were rarely mentioned in the classroom and never raised in the schoolyard.
Desmond and Best should have been household names In Nova Scotia by then; so today I want to thank the Nova Scotia government for honoring Viola Desmond, the African-Nova Scotia woman who challenged the “colour barrier” in a New Glasgow theatre in 1946.
Desmond’s legacy will be celebrated in February 2015, during Black History month, when the province’s first winter holiday will be celebrated in her honour. I was also grateful to writer Chad Lucas, for reminding us of the contributions of Dr. Carrie Best, the crusading publisher who told Desmond’s story in the Clarion, Nova Scotia’s first black-owned newspaper.
Lucas makes another important point by arguing we still have a long way to go in advancing the human rights of African Nova Scotians. Fortunately, we have an excellent opportunity before us to accomplish that goal. As the former director and chief executive officer of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, I know there is a great deal of goodwill inside government, and in our communities, to work toward achieving social equity goals.
The need to leverage this good will for positive change strikes me daily, as I continue working on a research article, Creating a New History for African Nova Scotians Living With Disabilities, Some Possibilities Arising From The United Nations Convention On The Rights Of Persons With Disabilities.
Why is a new history required? For one good reason: Our existing history has brought us to a place at which African Nova Scotians suffer from significant economic and social disadvantages. Indeed, for African Nova Scotians, the past is prelude to the inequalities community members contend with today.
People of African descent first arrived in Nova Scotia in the 1600s, with three larger waves of immigration bracketed by the U.S. war of independence in 1776 and the War of 1812. The treatment of 3,000 black United Empire Loyalists is illustrative. Promised land in exchange for their loyalty to the British Crown, they took second place behind white loyalists in the queue for productive land and needed rations.
As recently as the 1940s, Nova Scotia was an officially segregated jurisdiction, and seven decades later more subtle discrimination is evident in consumer racial profiling. A 2013 Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) report confirmed what African Nova Scotians already knew from experience – that they can encounter suspicion and hostility just by going to the mall to buy clothes for the kids. In this context, it is no surprise that (as Lucas says) African Nova Scotians are underrepresented in media, as they are in business, government and academia.
My message to Nova Scotians is that we’re better than this, and it’s time to start writing a new history to prove the point. This is particularly important for minority populations with disabilities, who face double discrimination based on racial background and disability. The good news is that the UN Convention on The Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which Canada is a signatory, establishes a framework for progress.
The NSHRC has a role to play in promoting the principles of the UN convention. Specifically, it has an obligation to inform disabled Nova Scotians what their rights are, and to work more broadly with the African Canadian community in Nova Scotia to help black people achieve full citizenship and the equal opportunity that goes with it.
In the end, though, the job of building an inclusive Nova Scotia rests not with government or a commission or a minority community but with all of us. This province can stand as a bright and shining example of accessibility, inclusion and diversity if we work together to achieve these goals. Once we do, Viola Desmond and Carrie Best will have triumphed from the grave – not because we’ve created a holiday that honors the former, but because we’ve created a society based on the principles for which both women fought.
David Shannon is a lawyer now based in Thunder Bay. A Member of the Order of Canada, Shannon has been recognized internationally as a passionate advocate of human rights.