Earlier this fall when Premier Tim Houston announced that Pat Dunn, a white man, would be the new Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, Vanessa Fells immediately started getting phone calls from media asking her for comment on Dunn’s appointment.

“When things like that happen, our members only meet once a month,” Fells said. “So, when something happens on a Monday and we’re getting phone calls Monday afternoon and our members don’t meet for another two weeks, it’s very hard for me to say ‘Hey, I’m gonna speak on behalf of everybody.’”

Fells is the director of the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD), which was formed in 2015 and represents organizations that recognize the International Decade for People of African Descent.

In response to negative reactions from many Black Nova Scotians, ANSDPAD and other African Nova Scotian organizers and organizations went on to host a series of virtual meetings. Hundreds of Blacks from across the province attended the meetings and broke out into various group sessions before reconvening to organize around strategic responses to Dunn’s appointment.

“We understand that it is important that at the executive table, which currently has nothing but white voices at the moment, which is problematic — that you need a voice of somebody who represents different members and different facets of our society,” said Fells.

Still, she acknowledges that it’s easier said than done and cautions around what expectations people should have.

“One of the things that came out of that meeting is that, you don’t just want a Black voice to say that there is a Black voice,” she said. “You want somebody that understands that lived reality and has the experience and ability to be that Black voice.”

Since the appointment of Pat Dunn to Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, Robert Wright, representing ANSDPAD, and representatives from several other Black Nova Scotian organizations met with Dunn and Premier Tim Houston about the appointment, as well as Houston’s dismissal of Dr. Késa Munroe-Anderson as deputy minister of Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, and Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, first ever Black person appointed to the Nova Scotia Health Board of Directors.

Houston told the group there would movement on the issue, and since then, appointed Duane Provo, who is Black, as Associate Deputy Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.

“We’re happy that his appointment is there,” said Fells, “but if you look at the hierarchy, it is still Duane Provo, a white Deputy Minister, a white Minister, and a complete white cabinet.”

How it started

Vanessa Fells, ANSDPAD Coalition director. Photo: Matthew Byard.

The African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition (ANSDPAD) was first formed following an October 2016 meeting at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherrybrook.

A working group from the United Nations was visiting Canada to conduct research on behalf of the International Decade for People of African Descent. While they were here, they also met with Black people in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

People from several Black community groups throughout the province attended the Cherrybrook-Halifax meeting, including ANSDPAD Coalition’s current director, Vanessa Fells.

“You had people from education, from justice, from health, from social services, from housing talking about reparations — talking about youth, talking about rural areas, employment,” Fells said.

“And we presented a very large report [to the UN] of not only issues that were happening in Nova Scotia, but also recommendations for change.”

Fells started her role as ANSDPAD director in November of 2018. Speaking with The Examiner last week at her ANSDPAD office, she explains how a 2015 decision to apply for a fellowship program to the United Nations was what initially set a chain of events in motion that would eventually lead to the formation of the coalition.

The International Decade for People of African Descent was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 2014. It goes from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2024. As part of the International Decade, the UN started an annual fellowship program.

“They bring people of African descent from around the world together to Geneva, Switzerland to learn about how the UN works and operates, to learn more in-depth about the International Decade itself. … So, I applied to the program and was accepted,” said Fells.

In October 2015, Fells traveled to Geneva to attend the month-long fellowship. Two weeks after she arrived in Geneva, Justin Trudeau was first elected as prime minister. When she returned to Canada, Fells said she wrote Trudeau, and met with former African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister, Tony Ince, as well as her local MP, in an effort to have the province — and Canada — formally recognize the International Decade for People of African Descent.

“It’s hard to see how something like an international decade can actually have real-world changes for somebody who is dealing with the lived reality of racist interactions that happen to them on a daily basis,” she said.

“I think what I would say is that he United Nations has recognized that people of African descent — millions of them from around the world — while they come from different walks of life, speak different languages, and live in different countries, [they] have a shared reality of dealing with things like racial profiling and racism, and segregation, and issues such as social economics. And that they have that lived reality whether or not they live in a country that would be considered First World, such as Canada, or if they lived anywhere else in the world.”

Canada and Nova Scotia both went on to officially recognize the International Decade. In 2016, a UN working group of the International Decade was granted entry into Canada to conduct global research on the conditions of people of African descent. This led to the October 2016 meeting at the Nova Scotia Black Cultural Centre, which led to the formation of the ANSDPAD Coalition shortly thereafter.

“All of us were volunteers at the time, and we decided to move forward to try and address some of these issues as a collective. So that’s really how the Coalition was born,” said Fells. “And then in January 2017, the street checks report came out.”

Street checks

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Just months after the formation of the ANSDPAD Coalition, the CBC published a report that said Black people in Halifax were three times more likely than white people to be street checked by Halifax Regional Police. The report was based on data released to CBC under the freedom of information legislation.

The practice of street checks refers to police being authorized to document information about someone, such as their race, gender, age, location, and time when they were observed, who they deem to be suspicious.

“You may be down the street and not even know it. And then all of a sudden, another police officer may see you the same day and say, ‘Then I saw him at this point,’ and they’re putting this information in the system,” Fells explained. “You don’t even know, you may not know, or they may stop you and ask you for your identification for absolutely no reason. And yet, the problem is most people who are being stopped and questioned felt like they were being detained by police.”

The ANSDPAD Coalition has a number of working groups. Among the main three are child welfare, health, and justice. Fells said that through the ANSDPADs justice working group, they lobbied both the provincial government and the Human Rights Commission to act based on the data revealed in the CBC report.

The McNeil Liberal government, at first, refused to act on the matter. And so, Fells said they continued to lobby the Human Right Commission and the government, all while Black community advocacy on the issue continued in the form of marches, protests, and discussions on local talk radio and in the media.

“You have protests in the streets, you have people who were standing up in the middle of the House while the House is sitting with signs that say ‘Ban Street Checks!’”

“It’s keeping the issue in the news, it’s reminding government that this is an issue that a lot of people care about, and we are not going to go away until you address it.”

Eventually, a University of Toronto criminology professor, Scot Wortley, was hired to do an independent report — The Wortley Report — that took about a year to complete.

In spring of 2019 when The Wortley Report was released, it showed that the numbers were actually twice the number of what CBC had initially reported. Black people were actually six times more likely than white people to be street checked by police in Halifax, Dartmouth, and surrounding communities. Other racial minority groups were also more likely than white people to be street checked by police.

The Liberal Justice Minister at the time, former RCMP officer Mark Furey, issued a moratorium on street checks that “directed police across the province to suspend street checks of pedestrians and passengers in motor vehicles until further notice.” Though, within the minister’s directive there contained what many call a loophole that said: “the moratorium protects people from street checks … provided there is no suspicious or illegal activity.”

Fells said the suspicious activity loophole meant that questionable street checks within the Black community continued to persist.

“The problem was, within that directive, they never gave a definition of what suspicious activity was, which meant any police officer could define it however they saw fit.”

“And we actually heard from members of the community — again, Black youth — who were saying ‘I was walking down Gottingen Street and I saw two police officers ahead of me, and I didn’t want to walk past them, so I crossed the road to walk around them, and was stopped.’ Because to police, that was ‘suspicious activity,’” Fells said.

“So, while the protests sort of stopped, DPAD didn’t.”

She said that the ANSDPAD’s justice working group’s legal opinion was that street checks were illegal. Where the suspicious activity loophole enabled them to continue, ANSDPAD then lobbied the government for yet another review — this time a legal review — to determine their legality.

“Now that you have this statistical information, you haven’t banned street checks, therefore we want a legal opinion. We want you to hire somebody to tell us if what the police are doing is actually legal.”

Their efforts paid off as a legal review was eventually issued and determined that street checks were, in fact, illegal. The same day the opinion was announced, the McNeil government finally issued a ban on street checks —in October 2019 — more than two years after the initial CBC report.

“But [there was] still the Minister’s directive which is on file and can be used,” said Fells.

Where the official ban restricts police from gathering information and data on people not placed under arrest, Fells say the “downside” is that no data, for example racial statistics, exist on people who have been stopped under the suspicious activity loophole since the ban.

Fells said that the ANSDPAD continues to fight the issue. She said the issue boils down to the matter of a legal term: reasonable suspicion.

“There is no legal merit in law, [where] a police officer is allowed to stop somebody and gather pertinent information, ID, or whatever, [unless] there is reasonable suspicion, which is two different terminologies, even though they sound very similar. One is based in law, and one isn’t.”

“And so what the Minister’s directive, which is still alive and well today, [does] is that it has created this grey area for street checks to continue. That is at least what we are debating with the Department of Justice about.”

Late last month, CBCs Michael Gorman reported that newly appointed justice minister, Brad Johns, said he intends to issue a new directive to close the loophole by the end of November after first meeting with members of the Black community.

“I can’t reveal a lot,” said Fells, “but I can say that it will happen sooner rather than later.”

“And the new directive will have very clear guidelines set out, that are already set out in law, on when a person can be stopped.”

More work on justice

August 1 marked the first-ever Emancipation Day that Vanessa Fells said the ANSDPAD Coalition worked to help get official provincial and federal recognition.

This past summer also marked two additional milestone achievements for ANSDPAD and its justice working group.

In July, former Liberal Premier Iain Rankin announced three years of spending for an African Nova Scotian Justice Institute to be led by the ANSDPAD Coalition.

In a press release, the government said the institute “will provide eight justice-related support, research, and outreach programs.”

“The idea for a Justice Institute came from people like Rocky Jones and Joan Jones way back in the 60s, to have a place for us, built by us that would address issues in justice,” Fells said.

In addition to data that shows harsher sentencing and higher incarceration rates for Black people in Canada and Nova Scotia, Fells said that a lot of the Street Checks data obtained as a result of ANSDPAD’s work became a “huge leverage” in securing the Justice Institute. She said they worked with the government for nearly two years on it. ANSDPAD is currently in the process of securing offices, an executive director, and creating job descriptions in order to staff the Institute.

“It’s gonna take time. It was announced in July, and I can tell you I get phone calls almost every single day from members of the community who are asking for help from the Justice Institute.”

Nova Scotia Legal Aid lawyer, Brandon Rolle.

The following month, in August, Nova Scotia’s highest court ruled that Impact of Race and Cultural Assessments (IRCAs) must be issued and applied whenever a Black person in Nova Scotia is sentenced in criminal court.

The decision came about after a young Black man received a house arrest sentence for possession of a loaded handgun in an instance where the judge considered the information contained in an IRCA report.

The Crown had initially wanted a prison sentence. They appealed and requested that the higher court provide guidance on when and how IRCAs should be applied.

Halifax social worker Robert Wright is a volunteer for ANSDPAD’s justice working group. He was the author of the very first IRCA in 2014 and was also the co-author of the one used in the case that was appealed to the highest court.

Halifax lawyer Brandon Rolle is the manager for youth services at Nova Scotia Legal Aid. He’s also a volunteer for the ANSDPAD Coalition’s justice working group. When the prosecution appealed the house arrest sentencing and sought guidance on the use of IRCAs, Rolle caught wind and then approached ANSDPAD and suggested they sign on as interveners to argue in favour of IRCAs at the court of appeal. Rolle himself ended up being the one to present in front of the five-member justice panel.

“So we brought it to the members and presented this and said ‘The justice working group has thought about it, we think it’s a good idea, we’re bringing it to you, what do you think?’ Unanimously they said ‘Absolutely. This is within our mission and mandate. Let us do this, let’s be the intervener.’ So that’s exactly what we did,” Fells said.

Tari Ajadi meets with Vanessa Fells at her ANSDPAD office. Photo: Matthew Byard

In the meantime, Fells said that while they work toward the launch of the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute, the ANSDPAD Coalition continues to work as partners in several additional projects such as a Black fisheries exhibit at the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, and an upcoming National Black Canadian Summit.

“To me, its about seeing the bigger picture,” Fells said. “Are we helping to — even a small bit — change the lives of people of African ancestry living in the province of Nova Scotia?”

“The Coalition worked two years without any staff. We worked from 2016 until December of 2018, when I was hired, without any staff at all. And they still managed to get things like The Wortley Report. And so whether or not these offices are here, the Coalition is not going anywhere.”

Fells said the ANSDPAD Coalition meets once a month and is made up of about 100 members, many of whom represent 35 African Nova Scotian organizations. For information on how to become a member, visit ansdpad.ca.


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Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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