Anti-Black racism has existed in Nova Scotia since the first Black settlers came to this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Early Black Nova Scotians arrived enslaved by British colonists, as Loyalists from the United States after the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, or as exiles from the mountains of Jamaica.
Racism in the realm of jobs and employment has been a constant in the history of African Nova Scotians and has left a damaging legacy of economic, social and political inequality.
White residents of Shelburne rioted, beating Black residents and burning their homes, allegedly for working jobs which were “rightfully” theirs. Black Nova Scotians who had not received the land grants they were promised (land stolen from the Mi’kmaq people) were forced to work for low wages to eke out whatever living they could.
When the Black Refugees arrived in 1813-1816 they were given rocky, barren land far from town centres. They were also given occupation licences instead of outright title to the land. White authorities tried to encourage them to leave the province, but the vast majority refused to go anywhere slavery was still practiced.
1812 – 1970
Black settlers in Africville only had access to menial, low-end jobs. Unemployment was chronically high, and inequity in education meant Blacks could not improve their skill set.
At the turn of the 20th century Black skilled workers were lured to Cape Breton from Alabama to work in the budding steel industry. But they were given housing inferior to that of white workers of the same skill levels, had to start their own schools, and were not paid as they were promised. They left in mid-winter, walking as far as Maine.
1910 – 1930
In the 1910’s, 20’s and 30’s many more Black workers came from the Caribbean to work in the Sydney steel plant. They were given the “dirtiest” jobs and had no opportunity for advancement.
The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) is formed to fight discrimination in housing, education and employment. The NSAACP conducts “tests” with White and Black job applicants in order to determine whether a workplace refuses to hire Blacks; racist hiring practices are challenged when they are discovered.
Up to 1960
Until the mid-1960’s, African Nova Scotians were not allowed to be nurses or taxi drivers, among other professions.
The Black United Front (BUF) forms and continues work of the NSAACP. The BUF also examines systemic roots of racism in Nova Scotia and gives the Black population “a new sense of worth and power,” according to academic Peter Power.
In the early 1980’s, the jobless rate among Black Nova Scotians was cited as being as high as 80 per cent, with average income cited as being one third the provincial average.
In 2013, a high-profile case saw a black employee of Leon’s furniture subject to racist harassment at work. The employee successfully brought the case to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, though her car was vandalized with painted racial slurs as a result.
African Nova Scotians report more instances of subtle, hidden racism – sometimes known as “microaggressions” – in the workplace than overt, blatant discrimination. But this type of discrimination is just as harmful, if not more so. It is more difficult for an outsider to detect; more difficult for a victim to explain.
Although we have seen progress since the worst days of institutionalized racism, there is still a need to practice seeing all forms of racism, and call it out when we do. As wealth, property, and access to educational opportunities and positions of power get passed down from generation to generation, African Nova Scotians have, by and large, been excluded.
It’s time to break the cycle. This project aims to document instances of anti-Black racism in workplaces in Nova Scotia.