Race and Place: How Racism Shapes Our Cities

“...everything I do onto her, our Mother Earth, I do unto myself.”
Africville residents were moved using City of Halifax dump trucks. Ted Grant – Library and Archives Canada.

Now hailed as a vibrant artists colony, Salt Spring Island, BC counts as its first permanent residents a group of free Blacks from California who settled the landscape in the late 1850s. Street signs bearing names such as Starks Road and Whims Road honour the island’s early Black families. Indeed, the enclave of about 10,000 continues to attract an eclectic coterie of people of African descent. For about a decade, I was among the Black folk who called Salt Spring home.

One day during a visit to the Salt Spring library, I was drawn to a book titled The Spirit of AfricvilleI’d previously read about the “velvet touch” Canadian racism that had facilitated the razing of Africville and other close-knit African-Canadian communities such as Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver (the 1997 film Rosewood showcases the more “rigorous” tactics utilized in the US, where I was born).

But I was stunned to discover that Halifax officials, in the purported guise of being “helpful,” had dispatched municipal dump trucks to relocate many residents of Africville to new homes. Founded in the 1840s by William Brown and William Arnold, two Black men who’d purchased land abutting the Bedford Basin, Africville housed about 80 families when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Published in 2010 (by the Africville Genealogical Society and Formac Publishing), here’s a passage from The Spirit of Africville: “Just think what the neighbours thought when they looked out and saw a garbage truck drive up and unload the furniture.”

Juxtaposed against the history of Blacks on Salt Spring Island (admittedly not without its tensions), the humiliation of the Haligonian maneuver left me speechless. I can only imagine the anger and sorrow of African Nova Scotians freighted with memories of forebears who’d been hauled like trash.

In Displacing Blackness: Planning, Power, and Race in Twentieth-Century Halifax, author Ted Rutland chronicles the machinations that have led to the degradation of the longest-standing community of Blacks in Canada; a group that, in the absence of government-sanctioned oppression, might have emerged as the archetype of Black achievement in North America.

A made-in-Nova-Scotia Barack Obama? Damn skippy it could-a happened. But no…

“More than any other Canadian city, Halifax is widely known for a particular example of anti-Black urban planning,” Rutland writes. “Africville is important because of…what happened to the people there, but also because of the broader structure of power that it symbolizes; the centuries-long neglect, plunder and subjugation of Black people in Halifax and across Nova Scotia by the state (in general) and planning (in particular).”

Readers familiar with the Pentagon Papers and its revelations about the deliberate US escalation of the Vietnam War will find resonance in Rutland’s bombshell narrative about Halifax. A faculty member in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment at Concordia University, the self-described “white man from Northern Ontario” outlines his objectives in the text that spans from about 1890 to 2010.

“The story of Africville helped to expose my own ignorance about Canadian racism and the role of racism in shaping (advantageously) the circumstances of my own life,” writes Rutland, who completed graduate studies at Dalhousie University. He notes that his sojourn in the city awakened him to “forms of political and spatial segregation” that stand as the hallmark of the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), adding that all whites profit from the pervasive anti-Black (and Indigenous) sentiments in “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”

The author continues: “For a white person…the injustices…are inscribed not just in unjustly higher levels of white wealth or unjustly better white housing conditions but in the very make-up of our bodies and experiences of the world. It is important…to acknowledge…the intimate privileges provided to white people in contexts produced and organized by anti-Black urban planning.”

Bob Brooks/Nova Scotia Archives

Those inclined to dismiss Rutland’s volume as Kumbaya pandering should check the data upon which he builds his account of the disempowerment of Blacks whose presence in Nova Scotia dates to the early 1600s. In addition to his analysis of myriad works on Africville, the author mines documents from the archives of the Halifax planning department, minutes and reports of Halifax City Council, the records of the Nova Scotia land registry and the records of numerous civic groups such as the Halifax Council of Women (HCW), to name a few.

Having expressed his need for a definition of “institutional racism,” Halifax chief of police Jean-Michel Blais (aka “Street Checks R Us”) might consider Rutland’s 68 pages of source notes. There he’ll find, among other educational aids, a citation related to a 1916 HCW meeting at which members discussed city-owned and operated free-lunch counters where segregation was strictly enforced. Translation: Hungry Blacks were forbidden to step inside, let alone enjoy a sandwich.

“One member suggested that the policy should be opposed,” Rutland writes, referencing minutes from the HCW meeting. “But another argued that segregation was not the same as ‘discrimination,’ and the matter was dropped.”

Fast forward and readers will find Rutland’s citation from a Halifax Regional Municipality Planning Strategy document (circa 2005) that detailed a proposed housing development (think: white) near the historically Black communities of North Preston, Lake Loon, Cherry Brook and East Preston.

“In addition to plotting the location of new homes, the planning process sought to determine the ideal distribution of future investments in municipal services and infrastructure,” Rutland writes. Citing HRM planning department records, Rutland notes that residents of East Preston expressed their interest in better water services, bus transportation, the installation of sidewalks, functioning streetlights and the construction of new community and recreation facilities.

“These requests were universally spurned by city planners,” Rutland notes.

Hired in 2014, former Halifax chief city planner Bob Bjerke was fired (without warning), last August. Reading passages from Displacing Blackness one can’t help but wonder if Bjerke envisioned a planning process that valued the voices of African Nova Scotians likely wary of development projects (hatched before his arrival) that are steadily pushing them out of the city’s North End and outlying rural areas to which they’ve been relegated (apartheid-style) for generations.

“I had no plans to leave,” Bjerke noted in a media report after he was sacked.

“I am not disappointed,” said Halifax city councillor Matt Whitman about Bjerke’s sudden dismissal. Whitman’s offensive remarks about people of colour and his tacit support of pro-white groups (retweeting a letter from a white nationalist organization last February, for example) have been well publicized.

In addition to the racist bent of many politicians, Rutland faults the city’s clergy, health officials, legal experts, educators and media for proffering damning stereotypes about Blacks. He cites an 1850s era editorial in the Halifax Morning Post that decried African Nova Scotians as an “unproductive and destitute” group best suited for slavery. The Provincial Magazine chimed in: “We have no hesitation in pronouncing [African Nova Scotians] far inferior in morality, intelligence, and cleanliness, to the very lowest among the white population.”

The relentless disparagement of Blacks played out in the process that culminated in the annihilation of Africville. As evidenced by the author’s documentation, the community had, since its inception, routinely pressed Halifax officials (all-white) for better living conditions. Instead, “The most undesirable and noxious facilities in the city had a tendency to be sited on Africville’s doorstep,” Rutland notes. They included: a dump, a tar factory, a slaughterhouse, a fecal waste pit, a prison and an infectious diseases hospital. The predictable outcome? Fetid air, contaminated water and battalions of rats.

Children play around City of Halifax pump in Africville. Library and Archives Canada.

After more than a century of deliberate abuse and neglect, Halifax city planners condemned, as a “slum,” the enclave they’d helped to create. In doing so, they eviscerated a self-sustaining (albeit beleaguered) Black community that remains under siege. Promises of job training, legal aid, educational programs and financial support for displaced residents of the blueberry-laden landscape never came to full fruition.

And yet, about Africville, the white owner of a prominent “eco-friendly” Halifax enterprise recently declared, in a private conversation: “I don’t know why the Blacks here just can’t get over it.”

Whites inclined to lament the so-called carping of African Nova Scotians are well advised to check their attitude—especially those who’ve now set up shop in previously shunned, as “dangerous,” areas of the city. I’ll put it this way: Who’s zoomin’ who?

Rutland’s chapter on the Black United Front (BUF) offers an overview of the Halifax advocacy group that formed in the aftermath of the destruction of Africville. Among others, the author salutes future attorney Burnley “Rocky” Jones (1941-2013) for promoting a platform of Black self-determination that, ironically, was later undermined by the organization’s dependence on government funding.

Rutland also ventures that an informant with probable ties to the FBI and RCMP infiltrated the BUF and fuelled fears about “Black activism and violence.” By 1996, BUF had effectively disbanded.

Readers will find a noteworthy companion to Displacing Blackness in There’s Something In the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities. The text by Dalhousie University School of Nursing professor Ingrid Waldron (who is African-Canadian) offers strategies to combat the polluting and poisoning industries (dumps, pulp mills, sewage “treatment” plants, pipelines, et cetera) routinely found within spitting distance of minority populations throughout Canada.

Crafted with a pointed emphasis on Nova Scotia, the book is an outgrowth of Waldron’s efforts as director of the Halifax-based Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health (ENRICH) Project. In the opening pages, Waldron reveals that she launched ENRICH in 2012 after a white social and environmental activist, Dave Ron, contacted her about a campaign to remove a landfill near the African Nova Scotian community of Lincolnville.

Among the province’s early Black settlements, Lincolnville takes its name from President Abraham Lincoln, whose 1863 Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the US. In an ironic twist, Lincolnville was home to the last segregated educational institution in Nova Scotia—the Mary Cornish School. It was not shuttered until 1983.

“As a professor whose scholarship had focused mainly on the health and mental health impacts of race, gender, and class inequalities…environmental racism had simply never caught my attention,” Waldron writes. “…Was this truly a problem in Canada as well [as in the US], I wondered?”

The book chronicles Waldron’s coming to consciousness on the topic and her collaboration, as an academic, with grassroots organizations in Lincolnville and other historically Black and Indigenous communities such as Pictou Landing First Nation, Lucasville, Eskasoni First Nation in Cape Breton, Acadia First Nation Reserve in Yarmouth, the Prestons (East and North) and areas of Shelburne.

The author writes: “One of the most important lessons I have learned…is that engaging marginalized communities requires a shift in thinking about…power, privilege, and equity. …Considerations about how researchers can work with rather than for or on behalf of communities must be premised on organic, trusting, collaborative, reciprocal, and equitable relationships. …This involves recognizing and respecting community members as experts in their own lives…at every stage of the research process.”

To that end, ENRICH facilitated (then and now) the participation of local residents in initiatives aimed to improve the air, water, sanitation and overall daily living conditions of groups traditionally ignored by corporate and government power brokers. In doing so, the project challenged myths about purported Black and First Nations “imperviousness” to physical, psychological and emotional pain.

“The reality is that both [groups] are more vulnerable than are other communities to illness and disease associated with their greater exposure to environmental risks,” Waldron notes.

And here, the author offers the reflections of a Mi’kmaw Elder on the reluctance of dominant cultures to honour Indigenous traditions of knowledge: “My greatest challenge…is to convince white people that [First Nations] not only have something to say, but to kind of raise a question in which [white people] ask themselves, ‘What am I doing?’ Because everything I do onto her, our Mother Earth, I do unto myself.”

There’s Something In The Water also breaks important ground in its discussion of the ways in which oppressed groups can internalize negative stereotypes about their own cultures and histories. “Resistance calls for a deep engagement with how colonization has impacted the minds of colonized people,” Waldron writes, noting the need for marginalized communities to believe in their inherent ability to survive experiences of “being burned, mistreated, exploited and ultimately abandoned” by outside “experts.”

The “ground up” ENRICH approach has led to successes such as the implementation of a water monitoring project in Lincolnville conducted by African Nova Scotian residents of the community. The initiative had three objectives: “To determine if there was contaminated water flowing in the direction of [residents] from the landfill site, to build the community’s capacity to test their own water, and to provide community members with basic knowledge about contaminants and groundwater sampling. …Members also reviewed reports and other literature on…hydroecology, and bedrock geology, as well as facility siting regulations…and maps created by government.”

ENRICH map of siting of toxic industries in relation to African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities. Available at enrichproject.org.

Confronting both internal and external doubts about their competency, Lincolnville residents got their science on. In short, they moved from being victims of environmental policies that threatened their well being to informed “citizen scientists” brimming with self-worth.

Presented as a series of case studies, Something in the Water stands as a valuable resource for scholars and social activists (of all stripes) hoping to foster and sustain measurable social change.

“Environmental racism is about the way our systems, our laws and policies uphold white supremacist ideologies,” Waldron has noted in media reports about ENRICH.  “…We put the dump in a community because that community doesn’t matter. Many people may not want to admit…this, …and they may not even know it, it is so deeply embedded in their psyche.”

As for everyday relevance, the last I checked, the Canadian Football League was chockablock with players of African descent. Nova Scotia government and private investors now lobbying to lure a CFL team to Halifax should note that Displacing Blackness and There’s Something in the Water underscore the province’s “reputational risk” (as one HRM report put it) on race matters—the recent drop kick of the city’s infamous Cornwallis statue notwithstanding.

Indeed, throughout my reading of these two volumes, “Somewhere” by Aretha Franklin wafted through my head. Less known than her smash hit “Respect,” Franklin’s gospel-infused rendition of the song from West Side Story gives new meaning to the lyrics crafted by Stephen Sondheim in 1957:


There’s a place for us
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us, somewhere.  

Set against the plight of Black and Indigenous people as detailed by Ted Rutland and Ingrid Waldron, readers will find a poignant pathos in Franklin’s haunting interpretation of the tune.


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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