Building Back Better

Pondering Atlantic Canadian books’ insights on building a better world
Dear Mr. Floyd,

Lawd today (as poet Langston Hughes was wont to say). The white folks have been apologizing and issuing solidarity statements and compiling “diversity reading lists,” and seeking out our voices, et cetera.

On the real, all the newfound “reckoning” has struck many of us as (cue: Count Basie) “Sent For You Yesterday.”  Because there were plenty of times when whites could have solicited our advice before you, already handcuffed and pleading for your mother, perished under the knee of a white Minnesota policeman.

Imagine if the future prime minister of Canada had checked with one of us before blackening his face in an attempt to channel Harry Belafonte. Or “think” (as Aretha put it) how much deserved disgrace Wendy Mesley and other staffers at CBC might have avoided if they’d watched—before free-styling on the N-word—  I Am Not Your Negrothe riveting 2016 documentary about writer James Baldwin.

And the white judiciary in Nova Scotia could have“listened and learned” from Judge Corrine Sparks who, in 1993, acquitted a Black Halifax youth who’d been charged with “assaulting” a white constable with his bike. After hearing sworn testimony from both sides, Judge Sparks, the first Black woman judge in Canada, ruled that she found credible the teenager who maintained he hadn’t attacked the officer. She also noted, George (if I may), that police have been known to overreact when dealing with non-white groups. Hmm…

Alleging that Judge Sparks had exhibited racial bias in her verdict, the Crown appealed her ruling and, abetted by the province’s white legal establishment, conspired to ruin her career before it had barely started. Four years later, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Judge Sparks’ decision but the damage had been done and lingers still.

Rather than build on its landmark achievement as the first province to appoint a Black woman to the bench, Nova Scotia, in its blatant disrespect for Judge Sparks, reinforced its reputation as a bastion of racism and repression. Progressive Nova Scotians tell me there’s a name for the province’s predilection for self-sabotage: “A culture of defeat.”

In the soundtrack for the film Waiting to Exhale (I know, brother-man) Whitney Houston and CeCe Winans sing “Count on Me.” Set against the backdrop of their moving duet (“When you are weak, I will be strong”), the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the COV-19 pandemic, I’d like to chat with you about some recent books I’ve read.

Nain schoolchildren sleeping in the boarding school (courtesy of Them Days Archive)

As a father, you’d have been both moved and maddened by A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland by anthropologist Andrea Procter. Based on accounts from former students, government records, and school archives, the volume chronicles the experiences of children in Labrador who were removed from their nurturing Inuit, NunatuKavut and Innu communities and dispatched to church-run schools where they were indoctrinated in “Christian norms.”

Here, a woman recounts her displacement, in the late 1940s: “I grew up for the first seven years … with my mom and dad. …  Going to boarding school was … very sad. … It was thoughts between do our mother and father really want us? … And if we didn’t go, our Family Allowance would be taken away from us.”

A 1970s-era Inuit student applauded his family for refusing to send him away. “By not going to that school, I got the opportunity to be raised … out on the land,” he told Procter. “I got to learn how to survive, how to use the stars, how to fish, learn the tides … I’m glad I did not go.”

In addition to a formal apology, the Justin Trudeau government later paid $50 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that detailed, chapter and verse, the abuse that Indigenous students in Newfoundland and Labrador endured. I’m confident, George, that your daughter Gianna, now age 6, will never have to fret about school fees.

Now let’s peep I Place You Into the Fire, the debut poetry collection by Mi’kmaq writer Rebecca Thomas. “My haters,” she declares in her acknowledgements. “You have only added fuel to the fire.” The provocative parting salvo serves as the author’s rallying cry for Indigenous people across the ages, among them Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi, both slain, earlier this year, by police in New Brunswick.

In “Matoax,” the poet honours an Aboriginal woman whose legacy has been distorted by white supremacy. “In your fairly tale I went … to baptism and Christianity all while my people continued to bleed,” writes Thomas, whose work proved pivotal in the 2017 removal of anEdward Cornwallis statue from a downtown Halifax park. “But behind your back, my jingle dress is jingling.”

“You don’t even know my real name,” she continues. “You only know me as Pocahontas.”

In “The Talk,” Thomas decries the systemic indignities that First Nations bear: “Think a minute about what it must be like to have never had tap water once in your life,” the author writes, referencing the multitudes of reserves today lacking running water and indoor plumbing. This, when frequent and rigoroushand washing has proven to stem the transmission of COV-19. 

Lamenting the circle game of government apologies to Indigenous people, Thomas also declares: “You can’t just say you’re sorry and not take the time to listen.” Still, in another poem, “Creature Canada,” the author offers optimism (with a twist). “Canada … continues to feed off our spirits through neglect and hopelessness,” she writes. “But all is not lost. Because it is blind, it can be led to where we want to take it.”

Leadership. Working with African Nova Scotian Maggie B O’Donnell, white writer Brenda J Thompson presents Finding Fortune, a biography of an early Black entrepreneur. “As a child, I fantasized that I was the descendant of some important figure in history,” O’Donnell writes, in a preface to the engaging volume. Her ancestry confirmed by DNA tests, she now proudly claims Annapolis Royal legend Rose Fortune (1774-1864) as her great-great-great grandmother.

Thompson notes that she relished writing about a person “who was not white, male, wealthy, or even middle class.”

In the early 1780s, a youthful Fortune arrived in Nova Scotia from the US with her Black Loyalist parents. As an adult, Fortune bought a wheelbarrow and launched a business hauling luggage (and other goods) between ships docked at bustling AnnapolisRoyal wharves and nearby hotels.

By the 1830s, Fortune had also gained prominence as an unofficial police officer who, equipped with a walking stick, kept “unruly lads” from loitering in town past curfew, Thompson writes. Although she was a stern taskmaster, it’s doubtful George, that Fortune ever pinned anyone under her knee.

In passages that affirm Thompson’s cultural sensitivity, she addresses the slights Fortune suffered for her “masculine” attire—a cap, overcoat and work boots. “The remarks … may be attributed to the obvious sexism and racism in reaction to a Black woman having the audacity to wear men’s clothing,” the author writes. “However … Rose was a labourer, pushing a wheelbarrow … mostly for white men. … Rose needed the practicality of clothing that allowed her to move, was of sturdy textile and kept her warm.”

The volume also includes a photo of a ferry that runs between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and that, in 2015, was re-named The Fundy Rose,in tribute to Rose Fortune. I’d wager that many US public facilities will eventually bear the name George Floyd.

Queer entertainer Big Freedia mourned you as a “true professional” who provided excellent security at her Minneapolis nightclub shows. “George was my buddy,” the New Orleans diva told reporters, noting your support of the LGBTQ movement.

Teaching at the Top of the World documents the experiences of Odette Barr and YoAnne Beauchamp, a lesbian couple that lived, for nearly a decade, in the High Arctic region that in 1999, became Nunavut, the newest Canadian territory. 

“A sincere interest in learning about Inuit culture and Inuktitut language goes a long way in developing credibility and respect with …  students and the community,” notes Barr, now a resident of New Brunswick. Fully committed, she and Beauchamp embraced their jobs as educator/administrators in isolated Inuit enclaves such as Grise Fiord (population 130). With an average yearly temperature of -16.5C, the hamlet stands as one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth.   

About the couple’s sexual orientation, Barr writes: “We had been upfront about our relationship when we were interviewed. … We never had to worry at all.”

Indeed, Barr and Beauchamp were warmly welcomed at community gatherings and traditional family meals that featured caribou, muskox and seal. The author delivers a memorable account of the roast polar bear feast that the couple once prepared for Thanksgiving. Hunted by a (female) Inuit teacher colleague, the bear was butchered on a dark beach, illuminated by “the headlights of parked snowmobiles,” Barr writes. “Generous portions were allotted to the Elders first, then the rest was shared with anyone who wanted to take some meat home.”

She continues: “YoAnne and I lugged two heavy plastic Co-op bags stuffed with … bear meat up the stairs to our apartment. We were so excited by this rare opportunity we videotaped the unpacking of the bags.”

Readers hoping to bridge racial divides will find value in Barr’s thoughtful memoir. “I try to walk in another person’s kamiks[boots] every now and then so that I may begin to understand their personal point of view,” she writes.

The author of several books including Cornwallis: The Violent Birth of Halifax, Jon Tattrie now comes with Peace By Chocolate: The Hadhad Family’s Remarkable Journey from Syria to Canada. The inspiring release traces the history of a refugee family that rebuilt, from scratch, the thriving chocolate business that had been destroyed in their homeland.

As a child, family patriarch Isam Hadhad became obsessed with chocolate after his first taste of the confection (imported from Europe) at a wedding celebration. “Chocolate fascinated him,” Tattrie writes. “He raced home. … He found a recipe for chocolate and tried to follow the instructions carefully. He failed. … He borrowed books that claimed to hold the secret to the perfect batch. … He realized he was an artist, and chocolate was his medium.”

In 1986, Hadhad sidestepped the civil engineering career planned for him by his parents and instead opened a small chocolate shop near the Damascus airport. The business flourished and the Hadhad name soon became synonymous with artisanal chocolate, Tattrie writes. But in 2012, the company fell victim to Syria’s endless war violence when the chocolate factory was “bombed flat.”

With only a few possessions and $800, the once prosperous Hadhad clan left for Lebanon where they lived, in a camp, until their December 2015 arrival in wintry Nova Scotia. “They’d been made to feel that most of the world didn’t want Middle Eastern Muslim refugees,” Tattrie writes. Grateful to land among friendly folk in Antigonishand spurred by the credo, Peace by Chocolate: One Peace Won’t Hurt, the Hadhad family determined to build a business “as big in Canada as Hadhad Chocolate had been in Syria,” Tattrie notes.

The company garnered global attention when, during a 2016 speech at the United Nations, prime minister Trudeau gave a shout-out to Peace by Chocolate. CEO Tareq Hadhad (son of Isam) now travels the world to promote better immigration policies. “‘None of us is born to hate,’ he told a group of government officials at a 2019 meeting in Paris. ‘…We learn how to be bigots. It’s time to unlearn hate and bigotry.’”

Like the Hadhad family, Newfoundland writer Douglas Walbourne-Gough advocates for social justice in his debut poetry release Crow Gulch (2019). The title references a former settlement near Corner Brook where people of mixed French and Mi’kmaq ancestry (such as his father) were damned with the racial slur “jackatar” and denied basic human necessities. As with Africville in Halifax, municipal officials destroyed the tight-knit community and, in the 1970s, moved residents into public housing.

In “Breaking Ground,” Walbourne-Gough honours the landscape of Crow Gulch. “You learn to take salt-blood as lover, as old god of giveth-and-taketh away,” he writes. “Bend like a tuckamore, lean against the wind, love it like a mother, let it shape you. … Life here was that simple.”

“Trouting” explores Indigenous fishing rights: “Don’t feel shame, cruelty doesn’t enter this equation despite PETA posters or misled McCartney messages. … This is intimate knowledge of where your food comes from.”

The author addresses the power and peril of a knife in “Fraught.” “Unfold the blade,” he writes. “Relish its click … Repeat until the motion is familiar as a kiss. … Tongue so sharp it screamed heads clean off in France.”

While strolling through a small town in Germany with her daughter, Lamarana Cooper Diallo, and photographer Wilfried Raussert, Dalhousie University professor Afua Cooper encountered a mural of singer Nina Simone (1933-2003). Raussert captured the moment in a photo that prompted Cooperto write “Lami and Nina.” The poem is among those found in Black Matters, an uplifting collaboration between the Jamaican-born scholar (also a former poet laureate of Halifax) and the celebrated German multidisciplinary artist.  

“How my love for you at this moment is so sweet and sad,” Cooper writes. “…  But I am proud of you and your womanly ways, your smartness and intelligence, your kindness and humility.”

Raussert’s photograph of a Black child in the arms of his dad (“Father and Son”) finds a perfect companion in Cooper’s poem about a notable African-Canadian figure. “You speak the language of horse and cattle,” Cooper writes in “John Ware: Magician Cowboy.” “Part of the brotherhood of Black cowboys who have been erased from the history of the West.”

She continues: “A white man named Stimson wanted you to take a thousand heads of longhorn to Canada …. In Calgary you showed them how to tame feral horses … put cattle to sleep with the vibration of your voice.”

Resplendent with incantatory rhythms “What Do You Do With The Hurt?” serves as a poignant requiem for lives annihilated by racism and hate. Think the multitudes of murdered and missing people of colour. Think Portapique.

Cooper writes:

What do you do with the hurt? Do you fold it neatly and tuck it in a dark corner of your closet …

What do you do with the hurt? Swallow it? Force yourself to digest it? Pray to eliminate it?

What do you do with the hurt?

Breathe        

release                              

let go?

Moved by her offering, Langston (“I am the darker brother”) begins to moan.

And with that, beloved George, your Minnesota homie, Prince, steps in:

Why do we scream at each other? This is what it sounds like when doves cry.

Written By

Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life. A resident of Halifax, she is passionate about okra. 

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