A dream too long in the making: New institute to address anti-Black racism in N.S. justice system

Michelle Williams, law professor and member of the African Nova Scotian Decade of Persons of African Descent Coalition, said she hopes the institute will bridge the gap between justice and law for African Nova Scotians. – Nebal Snan.

Nova Scotia is investing $4.8 million in a new community-led justice institute that will support African Nova Scotians in contact with the law and help address over-representation and anti-Black racism in the justice system. The province made the announcement Monday morning in Cherry Brook at the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia. 

Although African Nova Scotians represent about 2.4 per cent of the province’s population, they make up 10 per cent of admissions to sentenced custody and 11 per cent of admissions to remand in provincial correctional facilities, according to the province. “We know law and justice are not the same thing, certainly not for African Nova Scotians,” said Michelle Williams, an assistant professor of law at Dalhousie University. She said she hopes the institute, which is one the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada, will bridge that gap. 

The African Nova Scotian Justice institute will conduct research and consult with African Nova Scotian communities to understand the type of services and advocacy needed to make the province’s justice system more equitable. The new institute will begin offering services, including a legal defence program and a policing accountability program, within a year. It will be led by the African Nova Scotian Decade of Persons of African Descent Coalition and will provide eight justice-related support, research, and outreach programs, including:

  • units dealing with race and cultural assessments & treatment services
  • a data collection and policing accountability unit
  • an African Nova Scotian court support program
  • a community justice legal defence program
  • a bail alternative, incarceration support and reintegration program for African Nova Scotians
  • an alternative justice and victim services program
  • public legal education and youth development program
  • human rights and policing accountability programming.

The funding announced Monday will allow the institute to be fully staffed and begin offering programs and services within a year, said the province. Tony Ince, the minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, said the effect of anti-Black racism in the justice system has been “traumatic.” “It’s our lived reality. But we have never backed down in the fact of adversity,” he said Monday.

“With today’s announcement of the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute, we are bringing to life a dream that has been too long in the making … the dream of knowing that … in this province, the colour of your skin shouldn’t determine how you’ve been treated in the eyes of the law.” Establishing the institute is a culmination of the work that African Nova Scotian communities have been doing for generations, said Williams.

“We have suffered extraordinary oppression and structural racism, starting with enslavement, which many people don’t realize existed here in the province, and was really the foundation for how we continue to be treated in lots of ways. We also went through legal segregation. “We’re not that far out of those historical experiences,” she said.

Anti-Black racism continues till this day, she added, in the form of hate crimes, profiling, and human rights violations. Williams said she was thankful to the Nova Scotia government for supporting African-Nova Scotian-led work to address these issues, but the work “won’t be easy.” “Will it restructure centuries of oppression? Certainly not overnight. If it took that many hundreds of years to get here, it’s going to take us a while to get out of it.”