Facing up to an unflattering mirror – Update

In the wake of February’s cross-burning in Hants County, the Globe and Mail did what Nova Scotia newspapers ought to have done: assigned a top notch reporter to research and write a searching report on Nova Scotia’s unfinished history of racism. Many of you will have seen Les Perreaux’s piece when it appeared last month, but I missed it. He began by noting African Nova Scotia’s unique backstory:

[N]o other region on this side of the 49th parallel has Nova Scotia’s long history of a black-and-white divide. Until the immigration reforms of the 1960s, 37 per cent of Canadian blacks lived in Nova Scotia. Today, its black population of 19,200 is smaller than the numbers in each of the largest cities. But no other place in Canada has so many black communities still living in de facto segregation. Nowhere else in Canada does the legacy of slavery remain so tangible, as much as mainstream white society tries to block it out.

The remnants of that history can be as subtle as a suspicious glance in a corner store or the cavalier placement of a dog park or garbage dump on top of a poor community. At other times, racism flares up more dramatically, evoking places far south of Canada’s Ocean Playground.

Racism doesn’t disappear just because it’s no longer acceptable in polite company. On the contrary, the stigma that now attaches to racism may make it harder for white people to confront its influence. The unconscious syllogism goes something like this:

  • We want to believe we are good people.
  • Good people abhore racism.
  • Therefore bad outcomes that beset black people in our community must have some explanation other than racism.

  • Then along come Shayne Howe’s neighbors.

    The only black man in pastoral Poplar Grove in Hants County, Shayne Howe woke to the glare of that burning cross on his front lawn one night in February, while the perpetrators shouted threats and taunts. Then, last month, when one of the two brothers charged was due in court, the family car was torched, destroying the entire interior, including a new child-safety seat.

    Sporting diamonds in his earlobes and a baseball cap perched on his head, Mr. Howe is a descendant of the original black settlers, Loyalists and ex-slaves who came to Nova Scotia in the 1780s. He mixes paint one sunny afternoon in their grey bungalow to prepare for the sale of his family’s house, which backs onto a vast, green hay field.

    He’ll miss simple pleasures there, he says – riding his lawn mower, beer in hand, or skinny-dipping under cover of darkness in the backyard pool.

    “I was comfortable before. People seemed okay with me,” says Mr. Howe, a 31-year-old truck driver, recalling his relief when a local shop owner stopped keeping watch on him whenever he dropped in for a carton of milk.

    Because the alleged cross-burners are distant cousins of his wife, Michelle Lyon, many people around town dismiss the incident as a family feud. But Ms. Lyon says she had never met the brothers before.

    A venomous Facebook page with more than 100 supporters has popped up to back one of the alleged firebugs, where residents of nearby Windsor and Halifax throw around the N-word while condemning the couple as publicity hounds.

    The fatuous claim that the incident was just a family feud that got out of hand is an extreme example of white reluctance to acknowledge racism – even at the scene of a cross-burning.

    Perreaux’s entire piece is worth a read.

    [Update] Department of Amplification & Correction/

    Reader Ivan Smith takes issue with Perreaux’s statement that, “No other region on this side of the 49th parallel has Nova Scotia’s long history of a black-and-white divide,” but not for the reason you might think.

    Okay, maybe he meant it metaphorically. Nonetheless the geography is wrong. All of the Maritime Provinces lie south of the 48th parallel.

    All of Nova Scotia, except for a tiny sliver at the far north end of Cape Breton Island, lies south of the 47th parallel.

    Sandra Gittins of Truro points out that HRM’s mayor is of course Peter Kelly, not Peter Perry, as Perreaux calls him at one point.