Halifax regional councillors were challenged Tuesday to reflect on how they benefit from the same system that oppresses others.
“How will you use your privilege to lead change?” Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard asked councillors at the completion of her 30-minute Unpacking Anti-Black Racism presentation.
“Own the privilege, don’t apologize for the privilege, it is what it is, but how you use it is what’s really important,” Bernard said. “How will you integrate an anti-Black racism lens to your work … How will you help the Black Lives Matter moment become a movement for change.
“Young people, older people, people of all races are out there protesting and have been protesting for weeks now, fighting for change. How will you help them make this a real movement that will lead to sustainable change in HRM?”
Bernard, 66, an accomplished social worker, educator, researcher and community activist who grew up in East Preston, told council that there has been a recent collision of dual pandemics — COVID-19 and racism.
“We wanted to know how people were coping because we know the collision of the pandemics was having an impact,” Bernard said of a recent province-wide check-in for African Nova Scotians completed by the Office of African Nova Scotia Affairs and other groups.
“People talked about feeling mistrustful, finding it hard to even articulate how difficult and challenging this is, the trauma, the violence, the racism online, even though we weren’t out in the public for months, people were still experiencing this racism online. People talked about feeling exhausted, being challenged every single day, feeling alone and feeling tired and fearful but also experiencing backlash. These are real words from Black Nova Scotians about the trauma of racism they are experiencing in their everyday lives.
“But yet we survive, yet we keep going, keep fighting and keep moving forward.”
“There are other times when I have this nagging doubt that creeps in and says once COVID is over and people go back to life as ‘normal,’ we’re going to be pushed to the back of the bus again. We won’t really matter as much as we matter right now.”
Sen. Wanda Thomas Bernard
Bernard said the Black Lives Matter movement, punctuated by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May, has been a tipping point.
“Now we have people around the world speaking out about the pandemic of … anti-Black racism,” Bernard said. “COVID-19 really highlighted the disparities.”
Bernard said the health pandemic has amplified disparities witnessed in every sector, from education to work places.
The senator said she always tries to remain hopeful that change is coming but she regularly falls victim to doubts.
“There are other times when I have this nagging doubt that creeps in and says once COVID is over and people go back to life as ‘normal,’ we’re going to be pushed to the back of the bus again,” she said. “We won’t really matter as much as we matter right now. But what gives me hope when I have those doubts are things like this — your HRM council doing this special presentation on anti-Black racism and looking at ways that you can really move forward to sustainable change.”
Jacques Dube, the chief administrative officer for the municipality, said a staff committee on anti-Black racism is putting the finishing touches on a report and action plan to bring forward to council.
Dube said the implemented action plan will cover all municipal employees and enforce zero tolerance toward anti-Black racism.
A history of racism
Bernard began her presentation by talking about the history of African Nova Scotians, including the existence of slavery as part of the province’s economy and the existence of legally segregated schools in Nova Scotia up until the 1950s and the de facto segregation that has continued since then.
“It would not surprise me to know that many of you don’t know much about the history of African people in Nova Scotia because the history isn’t taught in schools,” Bernard said. “We need to understand the legacies of the historical anti-Black racism live on today through current policies and current practices.”
Blatant acts of racism, being undervalued and criminalization, “being stopped for driving while Black, walking while Black, driving a bicycle while Black,” all add to extra stress in Black lives.
“Black Canadians are victims and survivors of post-traumatic stress related to racism,” Bernard said, although it is not recognized in mental-health diagnoses.
“To keep doing what you are doing every day despite all the stress that comes from living while Black in this country, in this city, you are surviving, but surviving at what cost. The sites of oppression are everywhere, racism happens everywhere, in our neighbourhoods, in our workplaces, in businesses that we have to frequent if we want to survive in this world.”
The impact is a toll on the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and community health of Black Haligonians and Nova Scotians, she said.
Bernard lauded the municipality for taking progressive steps and for apologies for the Africville relocation and to the Black community by the police chief for historic racism and street checks.
“I would encourage you when you are revisiting what you have already done, do that with a gap analysis and look at what still needs to be done,” she said.
Coun. Lindell Smith (Halifax Peninsula North), the lone African Nova Scotian voice on council, asked Bernard about the term All Lives Matter being offered as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“When I hear the term All Lives Matter, it can almost set me into a bit of rage,” Bernard said. “It’s dismissing the reality, the need that is being spoken when people have to take to the streets to talk about the fact that Black Lives Matter, it means that we recognize full stop that those lives aren’t being taken seriously.
“For someone to say that all lives matter, it means they don’t understand it. They are not willing to see it, they are dismissing our reality.
“People are not protesting for the sake of protesting. They are looking at their elders, and yes, I am one of those, and they are saying ‘your methods haven’t worked well enough, your methods haven’t worked fast enough, your methods haven’t led to the fundamental change for the critical mass of our people.’”
Bernard said that message from young people tells her she has to push harder and do more because “people are putting themselves at risk to let the world know that Black lives matter.”