SYDNEY, N.S. — When the mother of four first saw the video, she thought it was of a racist incident in the United States, not Cape Breton.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Black Lives Matter movement has been pivotal in the efforts of raising awareness about racism and other racial inequities, and the year since George Floyd’s murder has amplified this message. This week, SaltWire takes a closer look at the racism the Black community experiences in Atlantic Canada and the solutions that could help effect change.
Her son had sent it to her while she was out of the house. In it, two people in a vehicle yell racial slurs at three teens who are walking across a mall parking lot, then the driver turns toward the youth and starts driving the vehicle in their direction, accelerating as he got closer.
“With everything that was going on in the States, I didn’t know it was him. I didn’t know it was from around here so I just watched it quickly. Then I was like, ‘Where did you get the video?’ And he was like, ‘It’s me.’ I was really upset. Not only the racial slurs but coming at him with the car,” said the woman, who the Cape Breton Post is not naming because her son is a minor and the case involves him.
The incident occurred on June 28, 2020, and the males in the truck, a 16-year-old and a 51-year-old, were charged a few days after the racially charged incident. The adult was recently in provincial court in Sydney.
John Edward Thomson, 51, was supposed to be sentenced on a single count of assault with a weapon (a vehicle). A new sentencing date has been set for Sept. 21.
The youth, who was charged with two counts of incitement of public hate, has been referred to the restorative justice program – an alternative sentencing program.
The mother, who we will call Cathy, said when she first spoke to Cape Breton Regional Police the day of the incident, the officer told her that he was going on vacation the next day and would look into the incident after he returned two weeks later.
Even with the video she provided to him, Cathy said the officer gave her the impression there probably “wasn’t much that could be done about that.”
Upset, Cathy posted the video to Facebook and the shares and comments blew up. After a day, Cathy was contacted by a female regional police constable.
“She was really upset about it. She said, ‘I’ve seen the video. I’ve watched it numerous times. Something can be done about it and it is going to be dealt with,’” recalled Cathy.
“She called us in for a few interviews and they took it from there.”
MOVED FOR HER CHILDREN
Two of her older children are biracial as Cathy is white and their father is Black. Cathy said last year’s incident is the only case of racism her 17-year-old son has experienced to her memory. But the same cannot be said for Cathy’s 25-year-old daughter who we will call Mya to protect her brother’s identity.
When Mya was young, Cathy lived outside of Whitney Pier. There were instances of racism from other students sometimes on the school bus or on the playground of Mira Road Elementary School in Sydney.
But it was even earlier that Cathy noticed racist remarks and actions directed at her for the colour of her daughter’s skin.
“I have a lot of friends in North Sydney, and I would take her over there and there’s been times when parents would pull their children away from her when they were at the park and I can only assume that’s why,” she said.
Sometimes it wasn’t only directed at her daughter.
“When she was four, we were at my friend’s over there (in North Sydney) and the kids were running up and down the stairs. A man came out and was yelling only at (Mya). I went over and told him, ‘Don’t you yell at her like that.’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s only you, the n—– lover.’”
After incidents with some children on her bus and at school, Cathy decided to move with her family to Whitney Pier, feeling they would be accepted there because the community is more ethnically diverse. She said they were welcomed with open arms.
“I think there is a lot more education needed,” Cathy said. “Maybe then people wouldn’t say such things or ask such stupid questions.”
SYSTEMIC RACISM EXISTS
Cape Breton Regional Municipality Dist. 12 Coun. Lorne Green, 56, was the African Nova Scotian representative on the former Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board and the first African Nova Scotian elected chair. It was a position he held for eight years.
Anti-Black racism is something he said exists in Canada and in the CBRM.
“To say it doesn’t exist would be a lie. It does exist unfortunately what it is now is hidden racism or systemic racism, where it’s underlying things that people don’t understand,” he said.
“Even language sometimes can be very offensive and it’s through education (we change this). We must understand no one is born a racist; it is taught behaviour and we have to teach it’s not acceptable. That’s the only way we are ever going to stem racism is through education and tolerance.”
Elected to the CBRM council for the first time in 1997, Green said he experienced racism.
“There were a couple of individuals who … would say things to staff members about my character and, you know, reference, ‘Is he really Black? Or is that something that he’s playing?’
“That’s really disheartening. This is coming from people who are supposed to be educated and supposed to understand words are hurtful and unfortunately that’s what I dealt with in ’97.”
Even his time spent on the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board, Green said he dealt with racism.
Things have improved for Green’s second term in council but it’s still there. He says the best way to deal with it is with polite education.
“I’ll give you one term for example – ‘boy.’ When you say ‘boy’ to a black man, that is very hurtful … because it refers to slavery. You try to educate people. You don’t use those connotations or languages when you’re speaking to a Black man or somebody of colour,” he said.
“You have to be very careful with words that you use and that goes to our culture. And that culture is something people outside of it don’t understand.”
While the murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin took place in the U.S., Green said it is relevant to Canadians.
“Canadian culture as far as it comes to the racism card, they always think, and when I say ‘they’ I mean it’s the non-minorities. They always assume (racism) doesn’t exist here or it doesn’t exist at that level. But, unfortunately, it does,” he said.
“It’s important for Canadians and Nova Scotians to recognize it is there and the only way to change society is through education and understanding of each other’s culture and differences. Because we are different.”
After Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, across the U.S., then the world, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests were being held.
They’ve in some way reignited the movement that started in 2013 in response to the shooting death in Florida of African American teenager Tayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman who pulled the trigger.
Green was at the BLM protest held nearly a year ago in Sydney last June 3, organized by young Black activist Darnell Kirton.
Protestors marched from the Mayflower Mall along Grand Lake Road to the Cape Breton Regional Police headquarters in the rain and all 1,500 people in attendance kneeled on the ground in silence for the same length of time Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck, taking his last breaths from him.
“I was in the background, at that particular time. I just stood in the background and watched and observed. It was moving,” Green said.
“It is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy to bring something like that to light. I think we need to be proactive versus reactive when it comes to Black Lives Matter. Let’s hope we don’t have to do another reactive event like that.”
Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Robert Walsh was a part of the BLM protest in Sydney last year.
“Personally, to be a part of that demonstration, was one of the most impactful experiences in my career,” he said.
“I wanted to be there, not only in my duty as chief to ensure public order and public safety, but also to share my voice against anti-Black racism and make sure our community knows their police service does not tolerate racism against the Black population or any population.”
He recognizes there is systemic racism in judicial institutions and policing in Canada, but Walsh stressed it is important people realize law enforcement here is different than in the U.S.
“Canadian policing approaches are very different from the United States and for many years have focused more on community engagement and well-being, and proactive crime prevention,” Walsh said.
“Police training and civilian oversight in Canada is among the best in the world. Officers are carefully selected and provided with extensive training that goes well beyond basic police skillsets including a wide range of cultural awareness, sensitivity and de-escalation training.
“Excessive force and racial profiling that can lead to wrongful arrests are practices we will never tolerate here at the CBRPS.”
Even before last May, Walsh said they’ve been working toward making the force more diverse to accurately reflect the community which currently has nine officers who identify as either Indigenous, African Nova Scotian or Asian.
The regional police force has also created a diversity committee and is finalizing the scope of a diversity officer position. Along with education, this position will help with recruitment from underrepresented demographics and it will deal with issues brought up by members of the force.
“There’s been enough research done to support the fact that systemic racism is real and that it exists in the criminal justice system, which by extension includes police. But I don’t think that means all police are racist, or that they are purposely out targeting minority groups, and I certainly do not think that is the case within the CBRPS,” he said.
“What it does mean, is that biases and perceptions exist and can shape how both police officers and the public view a situation and can influence actions or behaviours. So, we need to do the work – through training and education – to help our officers recognize and understand inherent bias and how it might shape views or responses to members of certain groups or communities.”
CONTINUING THE FIGHT
Justice and policing aren’t the only areas where systemic racism exists.
Cathy’s daughter experienced racism at her elementary school, on the bus and at playgrounds. Her son was in a shopping mall parking lot, years later, and the racial slurs were combined with a vehicle being driven aggressively toward him and his friends.
Solidarity Halifax has an anti-racism committee that helps people who experience racism or colonialism in the area. Primarily, their services are requested by Black and Indigenous people.
The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services has created an anti-Black racism strategy, which outlines a goal of “achieving a culturally responsive and anti-racist workforce.”
The department’s 2021-2022 business plan, found online, said government will continue “engagement with African Nova Scotian communities across the province and work to better address the unique needs of African Nova Scotian children, youth, and families. This includes working with all departments to improve education, health and economic outcomes by addressing systemic racism, inequity and their impacts.”
The anti-Black racism strategy initiatives included youth and community outreach programs, disability support programs and Africentric reviews of some government programs such as the Employment Support and Income Assistance Program.
Green says with more education comes more acceptance and it is still needed because inequality and racism still exist.
“The truth of the matter is, when you see a Black man, Black woman, we were referred to as ‘coloured people.’ You know you do see the colour. And, unfortunately, sometimes the colour outweighs the individual because that is the first thing that’s seen.”
Nicole Sullivan is an immigration/diversity and education reporter for the Cape Breton Post.
This content was originally published here.