Tag Archives: Nova Scotia

The Seaport Farmers’ Market and Halifax’s Race Problem

14 Apr

Last week, the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market announced that several “prepared food vendors” would be moved from the market’s busy main level up to its mezzanine level. According to the Halifax Port Authority (the government agency in charge of the market, not to be confused with the Halifax Party Authority, which used to be some drunk dude’s house on Hunter street) this will be done to make room for more farmers. Which, fine, makes sense since it is, after all, a farmers’ market. Farmers gonna farm, I guess. Here’s where things get tricky: all of the vendors asked to move were “ethnic” foods, including Mary’s African Cuisine, Viji’s Veggies, Stella’s, Pierogis 4 U, Turkish Cuisine and Amin’s Indian food. Meanwhile, two other prepared food vendors – Julien’s Pastry Shop and The Cake Lady – are allowed to stay where they are on the first floor.

It would be easy to argue that there aren’t any racial undertones to this situation. After all, pierogies fall pretty firmly into the camp of Foods Traditionally Consumed By White People. The argument put forth by the Port Authority that they’d prefer to have all of the farmers on one level and all of the ready-to-eat food on another seems reasonable enough at first glance. And if there are enough businesses operating on the mezzanine, well, won’t that just draw more traffic up there? Plus, the Port Authority is really, really insistent that “Ethnicity has nothing to do with this decision.”

First of all, I think there are probably racial undertones to anything that even just maybe sort of seems to have racial undertones. Secondly, I feel pretty cautious about anyone who feels the need to insist that no, for sure, this decision which impacts only “ethnic food” vendors definitely has nothing to do with ethnicity. Finally, I’m skeptical of claims of not-racism because this is Halifax, a city that struggles with its deep-seated racism. Not only that, but this is the same farmers’ market that a few years ago considered flat out getting rid of the “ethnic” vendors based on the idea that cruise ship passengers shopping at the market are looking for “authentic maritime culture.”

Of course, what they mean by “authentic maritime culture” is: white people culture. Specifically, they mean the pseudo Scottish-Irish-Celtic culture the east coast is famous for. They for sure do not mean M’ikmaq culture (although there’s nothing more authentically maritime than that), or Black Nova Scotian culture (in spite of the fact that there’s been a thriving Black population in Nova Scotia since the 1700s), or any of the other races or ethnicities that been in and around Halifax for hundreds of years. In Halifax municipal government speak, maritimer is synonymous with white and everyone else is a come-from-away. Even if their family has been occupying this land since long before the white people arrived.

I love Halifax. Both of my father’s parents grew up in the north end, and I was lucky enough to visit at least once a year when I was growing up. Later, I moved there for school and wound up staying for nearly a decade. It’s one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived, and has a lot going for it – friendly people, a great local arts scene, a sweet work-to-live-not-live-to-work vibe and a really big hill with a clock tower on it. It’s also the most white supremacist places I’ve ever lived, and I say that as someone who grew up in a city that used to be called Berlin and at one point had a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm in a downtown park.

A big part of Halifax’s race problem is that it doesn’t want to admit that it has a race problem. Ask most people about the destruction of Africville (a predominantly Black community that was literally razed to the ground in the 1960s) and they’ll glibly tell you that it needed to be torn down to build the new bridge and anyway wasn’t it, like, actually a dump? They don’t want to hear about the tight-knit community that existed there; they’d rather not know about how the provincial and municipal governments purposefully placed a prison, an infectious disease hospital, a slaughterhouse, a fecal waste depository and, yes, finally the town dump next to Africville. If you mention the fact that the Africville church was secretly demolished by the city at night to limit protests, they’ll roll their eyes and say that was a long time ago and why isn’t everyone over that by now.

It was not a long time ago. The church was torn down in 1969. The final house in Africville was demolished in 1970. And the pervasive racism that led to the demise of Africville is still going strong in Halifax today. According to Sherwood Hines, three businesses in Halifax have been fined in the last year for not serving Black customers. IT IS 2015 AND BUSINESSES IN HALIFAX ARE FULLY NOT SERVING PEOPLE BECAUSE OF THE COLOUR OF THEIR SKIN. That is literally a thing that is happening and I don’t even know what to say about except: Halifax, you should be fucking better than that.

During the last few years that I lived in Halifax there was a lot of talk about “revitalizing” the north end. On the surface, this seemed like a great idea, especially since there was a several-mile radius that contained no banks or grocery stores or pharmacies. I was like, “Perfect, I can’t wait to not have to haul food all the way from Quinpool road. Bring on the revitalization.” Except, of course, what folks meant by “revitalization” was gentrification. Almost all of the new businesses that have moved into the north end are owned by white people, employ a primarily white staff, and serve white customers. The Black population in the north end no longer feel like they belong in their own neighbourhood.

The movement of the “ethnic” food vendors and the gentrification of the north end are all part of the same problem: cultural erasure and whitewashing. White Nova Scotians are eager to preserve the idea that maritime culture is a bunch of white people singing sea shanties and downing cod, and the folks selling samosas and dolmas don’t fit into that narrative arc. But you know what, Halifax? Not only is that narrative racist, reductionist and completely inaccurate, it’s also played out. YOU ARE BETTER THAN A BUNCH OF DRUNK FRAT DUDES PUKING ON THE FLOOR OF THE SPLIT CROW BETWEEN VERSES OF BARRETT’S PRIVATEERS. Nova Scotia is diverse. Nova Scotia has always been diverse. How about we recognize that and celebrate it instead of tucking away those inconvenient shish taouk vendors and pretending that Black culture isn’t a thing that’s been happening in Nova Scotia for three hundred years?

Halifax, you need to get your shit together. You have an amazing population, and it’s time to start serving all of them.

todays-vendor-listing

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Wet (Or, I Am Acadian)

24 May

Earlier in the week I participated it Write Club Toronto, which is basically like Fight Club, but for writers. Eight writers are pitted against each other in two-person bouts, and whoever wins gets to pick a charity that the proceeds of the evening will be donated to. Each writer is given a topic, and has a little over a week to prepare a seven minute piece based on that topic. My topic was “wet” (my opponent’s, naturally, was “dry”), and I somehow emerged victorious even though I mostly wanted to throw up all over everyone.

I think that my proudest moment was when they asked what my charity was, and I accidentally said the Toronto Ripe Crisis Centre. Go team awkward.

Anyway, if you’re interested, you can find a free podcast of it here.

You can also read the full text below:

My great-grandmother, Alma LeBlanc, was born in this dilapidated old wooden house just outside of Arichat, Nova Scotia. If you’ve ever been to the east coast, you know exactly the kind of place that I mean – peeling paint, sagging walls, everything suffused with an air of grim defeat. The house was on the edge of a cliff on Ile Madame, which is an island off the coast of Cape Breton, and the place where it stood feels like the ends of the earth. When you stand on that cliff, all of North America lies behind you while in front of you the cold, dismal, grey Atlantic stretches on forever and ever. The ground drops away at your feet, and far below you the heartless, grinding waves smash against the rocks.

The climate is damp there, always. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable, just a faint clamminess blowing in off the ocean, and other times it takes the form of a suffocating fog so thick that the droplets of water hang suspended in the air, and it seems like a marvel that you can still breathe. But you can, and you do; you force yourself to keep breathing, you put one foot in front of the other, you keep going. And eventually the damp becomes a daily fact, and you barely notice its presence.

We’re a water people, us Acadians; it’s our element, you might say. This wasn’t always true – not so long ago we were farmers in the Annapolis Valley, that warm, rich, fertile strip of land across mainland Nova Scotia. In those days, our only interaction with water was through the dikes that we built. We were famous for those dikes. In fact, the other day, I did a google image search for “Acadian dykes” and not a single lesbian came up. Our dikes were ingenious, apparently, with mechanisms called aboiteaux that allowed fresh water in from the marshes but kept back the salt water from the sea. Our farms thrived. Things were good.

Of course, this idyllic life didn’t last for long. In 1755 The English rounded up the Acadians and put us all onto boats heading who-the-hell-knew where. Our expulsion officially had something to do with the Seven Year War, French and English politics, oaths we were supposed to swear and the religion that prevented us from doing so, but really, it was about the English wanting to have free run of the east coast.

We could have fought the expulsion, I guess, but that seems foolish when you consider the fact that the English had guns while we had pitchforks and shovels. We don’t come from fighting stock, anyway; most of us are short and pretty scrawny. So we went fairly quietly. But when the English turned us off our land, we threw aboiteaux wide open and let the salt water pour in, our own version of a scorched earth policy. Maybe that was the first time we realized that the water was our ally. A dangerous, unreliably ally, but an ally all the same.

We were split up, families torn apart, and sent off to wherever the English thought there might be room. We were dispatched to places like Baltimore, Boston, Williamsburg – they even built special forced labour camps in England. The boats were little more than prison ships, and over half of us died, but still. We kept going. We had to. And on those ships we learned to tentatively embrace our new home, the water, and treat it with equal measures of fear, love and respect. Thus far we’d thrown our lot in with the land gods, who were by and large fairly gentle and generous. The sea gods, on the other hand, are different. They’re cold, grey and pitiless, and view humans with complete contempt. You wouldn’t make a compact with them unless you had no choice.

We had no choice.

So we became fishermen and shipwrights, we learned to weave nets and build lobster traps. We added widow’s walks to our houses and learned to get used to losing our loved ones to the sea. Some of us straggled back home to Acadia, now called New Scotland, and settled the grim, barren coastlands that no one else wanted. We chose to isolate ourselves from the world around us, with the result that our clothing, speech and way of life didn’t much differ from what would have been found in 17th century France. We grew insular, as a way of protecting ourselves. We tried our best, on the whole, to steer clear of the modern world, and as a result we grew a bit peculiar.

Our names, for example, were peculiar.

I mentioned earlier that my great-grandmother’s name was Alma, but that’s not exactly true. Her full name was Marie Alma, and all of her sisters were also Marie, and all of her brothers were Joseph. Their middle names, though, the names they were called by, are what really fascinate me – Artemise, Evangeline, Sabine, Stella, Napoleon, Casimir, Leander. Strange names, old names, nearly all Greek or Latin; names you wouldn’t think to find among a largely uneducated population. I asked my great-grandmother once where they came from, and she said they came out of the “other” book. Because they had two books, the Bible and the “other” book, though exactly what that second book was she didn’t know.

Alma came from a family of twenty three – twenty three! I can’t even imagine. But as my grandmother says, “My God, Annie, what do you think they did on those long, cold winter nights? They didn’t have tv or radio, and they sure as hell didn’t have birth control.”

What they did have was a farm, and all those children came in handy as free labour. It was impossible to scrape a living for so many people out of that thin, rocky soil, so Alma’s father left his wife and children behind and took to the sea, wrestling the bitter Atlantic waters for whatever he could get. He would leave for weeks, sometimes even months at a time, often returning to discover that all that keeping-warm-on-cold-winter-nights had resulted in yet another mouth to feed. Meanwhile, Alma’s mother oversaw the farm, managed the household accounts and raised their children. Or rather, she did all of these things until she died giving birth to poor Joseph Alfred, unlucky baby number thirteen.

Alma’s father remarried almost immediately, because who the hell was going to take care of his thirteen kids? But like an evil stepmother straight out of a fairytale, his new wife hated her new life, and took out her resentment on her husband’s children. While he was off at sea, she beat them. She starved them. She let them freeze during the bitter winters. She forced one of them, Sabine, who had a bleeding disorder, to walk across sharp grass until her feet bled. The blood oozed out of her for nearly a week, and the priest came three times to give her extreme unction. Somehow, though, she managed to survive.

Survival is the reason that my great-grandmother left Cape Breton as soon as she was able to. Survival is the reason she married an Englishman, had ten English kids with ten English names, and gave up her mother tongue entirely. Assimilation can sometimes seem like the only way forward.

I’m pretty much assimilated. Really, I’m barely Acadian. I’m not even really sure what it means to be Acadian. Is it where you live? The food you eat? The language you speak? I mean, I speak French, but only rarely, and with great embarrassment. I grew up in the wilds of suburban southwestern Ontario, far from any ocean or sea. I don’t know the first thing about dikes or irrigation or anything like that. I can’t even swim, not really – the most I can manage is a pathetic dogpaddle.

Still, though, I’m a water person. It’s in my blood – I mean, both literally and figuratively. As removed as I am from the ocean, it’s still my element. I love being wet. I run outside during thunderstorms and let myself get soaked to the skin. If there’s a lake or river or stream, I have to be in it. Even a public fountain will do, if I have no other options.

Water is where I feel the most like myself.

And when I stand in the spot where my great-grandmother’s house was, and I feel the cold sting of the saltwater on my skin, and I look out into the vast grey Atlantic in front of me, I feel like I’m finally home.

Cape Breton

Cape Breton

Rehtaeh Parsons

9 Apr

The story is disturbingly familiar.

A teenage girl goes to some kind of get-together, maybe a party.

She is raped by multiple assailants.

The rape is photographed and distributed via social media.

The girl is subjected to horrifying acts of bullying and shaming. She is branded a slut. Her life becomes a living hell.

This girl is not Steubenville’s Jane Doe, although their stories bear a remarkable resemblance. This girl is Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who hanged herself on April 4th, a year and a half after being raped. Her family took her off life support this past Sunday.

Reading the account of what happened to Rehtaeh is like watching a deadly accident slowly, methodically unfolding in front of you. And there are bystanders, plenty of bystanders, who had any number of opportunities to step in and do something, but none of them do.

And, in many ways, you are one of these bystanders, too. I am, too. We all are.

Rehtaeh did not have a rape kit done because she was too ashamed to tell anyone about her rape until several days later, at which point it was thought to be too late to retrieve medical evidence.

The boys (there were four of them) accused of raping Retaeh were not interviewed until long after the family tried to press charges.

They were not separated for their interviews; they were interviewed together, meaning that they were easily able to corroborate each others’ stories.

The investigation took over a year. In the end, it was decided that there was insufficient evidence of sexual assault, no charges were laid, and the boys got off scot free.

No legal action was taken with regards to the photographs of the rape that were distributed through social media. Rehtaeh’s mother was told that this was because there was no way of proving who had taken the pictures.

Rehtaeh struggled to survive for seventeen months. She moved to Halifax, unable to cope with the fact that her rapists were also her high school classmates. She checked herself into the hospital when she felt suicidal and stayed there for six weeks. She made new friends. She saw a therapist. She fought to live. She fought hard.

And then one day, she couldn’t fight any longer.

And when I read her story, I can’t help but wonder:

Where the fuck were all the grownups?

Where were the grownups who were supposed to love her and protect her? Where were the grownups who should have kept her safe? Where were the grownups who were supposed to make sure that she received some kind of justice for what she suffered?

And I don’t mean her parents, because it’s clear that they, too, have been struggling for the past seventeen months, doing what they can to try to help and advocate for their daughter. I mean where the fuck were the school officials, the members of the law enforcement, the people who should have made sure that she had adequate follow-up mental health care after her hospitalization? Where were they, and why didn’t they do anything? Or if they did do something, why didn’t they do enough?

Rehtaeh’s rapists are still out there. They are still in high school, they are still going to parties and they are, quite likely, still raping. Why wouldn’t they? They got away with it once, didn’t they? Rehtaeh’s rapists are still living normal, untroubled lives, and she is dead.

She’s dead, but even in the wake of her suicide and the attention her case has gained, government officials are refusing to review why the RCMP declined  to lay charges against Rehtaeh’s rapist.

Instead, Nova Scotia’s justice minister, Ross Landry, released this fucking joke of a statement:

“As a community, we need to have more dialogue with our young people about respect and about support to educate our young boys and our young girls about what’s appropriate behaviour, what’s not appropriate behaviour,” Landry said.

“We have to make sure that we’re cognizant about what gets online and what doesn’t get online and what the impacts are, so it’s having that dialogue.

“That still doesn’t take away the fact that we’ve lost a beautiful young woman … and I’m very upset about the loss.”

Saying that we need to educate boys and girls about appropriate behaviour is victim-blaming. Saying that this wouldn’t have been a problem if the pictures hadn’t ended up online is like saying that rape is fine, but publicly broadcasting it isn’t. Calling Rehtaeh’s death a tragedy because we’ve lost a beautiful young woman is a joke – seriously, what bearing does her appearance have on how sad her death is? And since Landry is refusing to open an official review into how the RCMP handled this, isn’t he basically saying, “I think she was lying about the rape, but gosh, she sure was hot”?

All of this, every single word of this statement, all of the things that Rehtaeh endured, every single detail presented here is rape culture.

This is rape culture. This is our culture.

I never thought in a million years that I’d be saying this, but I wish that Rehtaeh’s case had had the same outcome as Jane Doe’s. Because while Jane Doe had to endure some spectacularly vile, awful shit, at least she made it out alive. At least her rapists suffered consequences. At least her case actually made it to trial.

rehtaeh parsons

This is Rehtaeh Parsons. When she was fifteen, she was raped by four boys. When she was seventeen, she committed suicide.

She is dead because we, as a society, failed her.

There is a petition up demanding an inquiry into the police investigation of Rehtaeh’s rape. I’m not sure if it will do anything to help, but signing it sure as hell won’t hurt. Right now, this petition and bringing awareness to what happened to Rehtaeh seem like the only concrete ways of helping her. Right now, I need to do something, anything to stop myself from feeling like a bystander. I’m not going to just shake my head and sigh over this. I’m going to raise my voice until everyone knows what happened to Rehtaeh.

Edited to add:

Ross Landry now says that he will be moving forward with a review of Rehtaeh’s case. Thank God. An excerpt from the article I linked to:

Justice Minister Ross Landry said today, April 9, he has asked senior government officials to present options, as soon as possible, to review the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

“This situation is tragic, I am deeply saddened – as I think are all Nova Scotians – by the death of this young woman,” said Mr. Landry. “As a parent, I can’t imagine the pain this family is going through at this time. My thoughts are with them.”

Mr. Landry said he hopes to meet with Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, to discuss her experience with the justice system.

“I know that law enforcement and the public prosecution service do their best, every day, to administer and enforce the law,” said Mr. Landry. “It’s important that Nova Scotians have faith in the justice system and I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice.”

Mr. Landry said he has been reviewing details of the case and consulting with officials throughout the day, and expects options within the next few days.