Oh Canada! Nova Scotia’s Black Historical Significance
Nova Scotia, one of the thirteen provinces and territories of Canada, is a locale on the North American map that few know about. Located in the Atlantic due east of the state of Maine, the name is Latin for "New Scotland,”
I have personally visited several Canadian provinces and cities over the years. Toronto, Ontario with its rich melting pot of ethnicities and cultures has become one of my favorite cities. Then there’s the western province of British Columbia where I have indulged in its lush, green foliage and temperate rainforests.
But it’s Nova Scotia that has now captured my attention. In my research of its history, I was shocked to discover that people of African descent make up a significant part of the province’s deep legacy. Nova Scotia, in fact, holds the distinction of being the birthplace of Black culture and heritage in Canada, boasting the largest indigenous Black community in the country.
Black Nova Scotians (also known as African Nova Scotians and Afro-Nova Scotians) are Black Canadians whose ancestral roots date back to the 18th and 19th centuries when slaves and freemen arrived on the small maritime province. According to recent census records, 28,220 Black people live in Nova Scotia, primarily in the capital of Halifax.
Scores of Black Nova Scotians have also migrated to the aforementioned Toronto in search of larger opportunities. Prior to the Canadian immigration reforms of 1967, Black Nova Scotians comprised nearly 40% of the Black Canadian population.
Today, these settlers are nestled in 52 historic communities throughout the province, including Shelburne, Africville, East Preston, Annapolis Royal, Cherry Brook, Halifax, Sydney, Springhill, North Preston, and Beechville to name a few.
Most notably, Africville was a close-knit Black community in the north end of Halifax for over 120 years. In a controversial move, the city demolished it in the 1960s, with its residents seeking justice ever since.
For a deeper look at the Black historical significance of Nova Scotia, I had the pleasure of connecting on LinkedIn with Rubin A. Coward, a Community Development Advocate who was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia on Cape Breton Island. He grew up in Whitney Pier, a Ward in Sydney.
He says that his father, Arthur Reginald Coward, was born in St. Andrew, Barbados in February of 1890. After a one-year journey to work on the Panama Canal, he came to Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1912 to work at the Sydney Steel Plant.
His mother, Sybil Elaine Coward (nee) Francis was born in Sydney, Cape Breton in 1925. She is currently 97 years old.
Rubin himself is married to Deborah Ann Coward, and they have two sons, Reuben and Matthew. He says that they also have a granddaughter who warms their very souls with love adding, “we are very blessed.
A graduate of Sydney Academy, Sydney, Cape Breton in 1976, he was accepted that same year at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada where he spent four years there enrolled in a Science program.
He says that he found himself disillusioned with the level of systemic racism he experienced by a few professors and became discouraged. Coward joined the Canadian Airforce in 1981 and was medically released in 1995 due to what he calls anti-Black racism, systemic racism, institutional discrimination and cronyism. He left Nova Scotia in 1981 and says that he didn't return until nine years later.
Historians, he says, who have researched the narrative of Black people in Nova Scotia consider immigration to the area as falling into four broad categories:
The arrival of Black Loyalists (and Black Slaves brought by white loyalists as part of their slave holdings in the year following the American Revolution of 1776
The relocation of Jamaican Maroons in 1796;
The influx of Black refugees from the War of 1812; and
The arrival of Black workers and their families from the islands of the Caribbean to work in coal and steel industry in towns such as Sydney, New Waterford, Glace Bay and Donkin, Cape Breton Island.
In terms of Black Americans, Coward notes that they came to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad, landing in Windsor, Canada (just across from Detroit) to escape the Slave Trade and Jim Crow Laws in America. This largely occurred due to a misconception that the Canadian North wasn’t racist which he says wasn’t true.
“There were also those who arrived from the Caribbean who brought African Culture and a sense of community and a respect for their elders with them. We had to respect "all" of the elders in our community. They carried a sense of pride that was made manifest when Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Activist came to Cape Breton in 1937 and spoke about the Back to Africa Movement.”
Coward says that his father was one of the delegates chosen to escort Mr. Garvey between Sydney and Glace Bay to deliver his speech.
He adds that in the 1970's a survey revealed that Sydney's Caribbean community held the highest percentage of education amongst all Blacks in Canada.
In terms of what he would recommend to those who are interested in learning more about Black Nova Scotian History, Coward offered this:
“The Black Report prepared in 1994 consisted of three volumes and 467 pages that clearly underscored the disparities in Education and Early Childhood Development for Black Learners in Nova Scotia. While not a book, I consider it to be a significant contribution to the Black Communities of Nova Scotia.”
He says that in 1995 he wrote a proposal to address the Provincial need for Community Development Workers and Assistants in Black communities in Nova Scotia. At that time, he volunteered to assist Black Learners in the communities of Lucasville and Upper Hammonds Plains, two of the many Black communities left behind due to Anti-Black Racism, Systemic Racism, and Institutional Discrimination.
Additionally, he suggested these books:
Burnley "Rocky" Jones Revolutionary: An Autobiography by Burnley “Rocky” Jones
A Child of East Preston by Wanda Thomas Bernard
Where Beauty Survives by George Elliott Clarke
In terms of his own reading lifestyle, he says that he loves to read a variety of books and has a good library that consists of several hundred authors. Included on his list of favorite authors are Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Vaclac Havel, Barack Obama, James Baldwin, Max Lucado, Gabor Mate MD, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Malcolm Gladwell
Some of his favorite books include:
Open Season by Ben Crump
The Mis-Education of the Negro by G. Carter Woodson
The Measure of A Man by Sidney Poitier
The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
He says in closing:
“I could name several hundred more, but I believe you get my drift.”