And the winner is…
In the days following the Nova Scotia provincial election last month, where the Progressive Conservatives (PCs) won a majority government but failed to elect any Black MLAs, the Halifax Examiner was the first to pose the question: Who will be the next minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs?
On Tuesday, that question was answered when Pat Dunn, PC MLA for Pictou Centre, who is white, was announced as the new minister for both African Nova Scotian Affairs and the brand-new Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives. Dunn replaces Liberal MLA for Cole Harbour, Tony Ince, who is Black.
Negative online reaction among many Black/African Nova Scotians was swift, as well as among many white and non-Black Nova Scotians.
Tracey Dorrington Skinner, a co-founder of Victims Of Institutionalized Child Exploitation Society (VOICES) said, “As a Nova Scotian collective we have to make sure the Premier understands the gravity of his decision.”
Well-known community activist Quentrel Provo asked openly: “Premier Tim Houston, would you call an Electrician to do plumbing work in your house?”
Premier Houston addressed the appointment Tuesday following the new government’s swearing-in ceremony. “Democracy works best when the people that are elected, are put into positions of accountability,” he said, “and that’s the best way it works.”
Later that night in an interview on the CTV Evening News, Steve Murphy asked Houston:
“This is not a particularly diverse cabinet, in fact apart from some gender diversity it’s not diverse at all. How do you propose to hear the voices of the many communities not represented around that table?”
In part, Houston responded:
“We ran the most diverse slate of candidates that the party has ever run. I’m very proud of the slate of candidates we had. Election came, Nova Scotians made their decisions, I respect their decisions. But as premier, the final responsibility rests with me with the ministers that we put in place. Those communities, my message to them, I don’t want (there) to be any confusion, my message to them: we respect you, we will listen to you, we will work with you, your voice will be heard. That’s my commitment to you and my slate of ministers know that too. We know we’re focused on it.”
Prior to the election, the Examiner reported that in addition to the riding of Preston being the first riding in the Maritimes to run all Black candidates in a provincial election, a record total of 11 Black candidates were running between the PCs, Liberals, and NDP. Of those 11, three were PC candidates. Those Black PC candidates, however, faced a seemingly tall task.
With three Black candidates running in Preston, at least two of them were destined to be unsuccessful. PC Candidate Archy Beals and NDP candidate Colter Simmonds lost to Liberal candidate Angela Simmonds. Though the riding was up for grabs with Liberal MLA Keith Colwell stepping down, the PCs had only won the area’s riding once since before 1993.
In the riding of Cole Harbour, Black PC candidate Darrel Johnson was narrowly defeated by two-time Black Liberal incumbent, Tony Ince. Ince has held the riding since defeating NDP incumbent premier Darrell Dexter in 2013. Similar to Preston, the riding in Cole Harbour hadn’t elected a PC MLA since 1988.
Black female PC candidate, Lisa Coates, was also unsuccessful in her bid to defeat two-time, white, NDP incumbent Susan Leblanc in the riding of Dartmouth North. That riding hadn’t elected a PC MLA since 1984.
Asked specifically about the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs immediately after the appointment was announced Tuesday, Houston said:
“Our minister will listen to them respect them and work with them, so … we’re optimistic. And I understand the emotions of it, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as … not being concerned about listening to the community.”
Social media reactions in various Black/African Nova Scotian social media circles rapidly persisted throughout the night and into the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Reactions ranged from mostly anger, but also sadness, shock, and amusement. While some poked fun at Dunn’s appointment, others’ comments were quite serious in their disapproval of a white minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.
CBC reported that “Houston says (Dunn) got the job, in part, because of his connections to the Black community of Priestville outside New Glasgow.”
However, former Priestville resident, Darrell Bowden, casted dispersions on Houston’s alleged claims, writing:
“Now, I grew up in Priestville and unless I am mistaken. This is a huge error! The 2016 Census indicates that the population of Priestville is 163 and only 10 people indicated that they have Black/African ancestry. So how does this form a predominate number?”
The Black community near New Glasgow is centred around Vale Road, about a kilometre north of Priestville. That’s not far, but it’s a distinction that, say residents, shows Houston and Dunn don’t much comprehend the community.
Houston fires prominent Black civil servants
Despite highlighting the fact that the PCs ran their most diverse slate of candidates in the party’s history, and despite defending Dunn’s appointment by stating that “Democracy works best when the people that are elected, are put into positions of accountability,” on Tuesday Houston also dismissed two prominent Black female non-elected officials.
Dr. Késa Munroe-Anderson was dismissed in her role as Deputy Minister of the departments of Communities, Culture and Heritage. Houston replaced her with Justin Huston, who is white*.
Additionally, Houston also dismissed Professor OmiSoore Dryden, the first and only Black member of the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s board of directors. Houston announced that the nine-member board is being replaced with an all-white, four-person “leadership team.”
Asked specifically about the dismissal of Munroe-Andson, Houston seemingly deflected, saying that:
“We made we made changes to a number of deputies. We have a vision for the province. We look very, very seriously. These are hard conversations because we know there’s ramifications. And we thought we were in the best interests, executing on the vision and the impact of the number of people that it impacted. So many of us yesterday were volunteer, volunteer service. And so I’m fully aware of the ramifications on our people that personnel decisions are made.”
Black Community in Dunn’s riding is tight-lipped
Some of the people we spoke to were former students of Dunn. They admire Dunn on a personal level, but nonetheless disapprove of his appointment as a white minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.
One Vale Road area resident said Dunn didn’t campaign or leave campaign literature at their door or in their mailbox this past election.
I reached out to Black New Glasgow resident Crystal States. States works for the Black Educators Association (BEA) as the Regional Educator for the Northern region. Additionally, she serves as co-chair to the New Glasgow Black Homecoming committee, as well as the treasurer and past president of the Ward One Community Centre, located in the Vale Road area.
I wanted to gain insight from States with respect to her opinion of the Black community’s overall familiarity with Dunn; how often he comes around and engages with the community, both on a personal level and in his former role as official critic to the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs; and whether or not she and others in the community see him as a good fit for the new Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.
But other than to say she knows him, States was unable to speak publicly about Dunn, citing contracted policy with her position with the BEA.
Other people I spoke with were also unable to go on record about Dunn due to their jobs.
At noon on Thursday, Colter Simmonds, the unsuccessful NDP candidate for Preston, hosted a virtual zoom meeting with over two dozen Black Nova Scotians to discuss Dunn’s appointment.
In addition to Dunn’s appointment, the abrupt dismissals of Késa Munroe-Anderson and OmiSoore Dryden were also heavily discussed, as were other topics and affairs pertaining to Black/African Nova Scotians.
Early in the meeting, I identified myself as a reporter for the Examiner. I asked if anyone thought there may be a silver lining in the appointment of a white minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs because a person with no connection to the Black community might be free of intra-community biases and conflicts.
That suggestion was rejected. Throughout the course of the hour and a half meeting, many people made very clear and reiterated that they felt there was absolutely no silver lining in having a white minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, and that, on the contrary, the appointment is, in fact, problematic.
Percy Paris: Dunn’s appointment “harkens back to the days of slavery”
After the meeting, I spoke with former NDP Minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, Percy Paris, who was the first Black minister to serve in the role.
“I had thought that we had gone beyond the paternalistic attitude of whites when it came to the African Nova Scotian community … that whites are best suited to look after the needs of the African Nova Scotian community more so than we ourselves,” said Paris.
“When we see steps like this, it harkens back to the days of slavery when the white community didn’t do things with the African Nova Scotian Community, but for,” continued Paris. “How can a white individual adequately understand the predicament and situations and all that goes with being Black in the province of Nova Scotia when, indeed, white males have long been a large part of the problem?
“One of the problems with the appointment is that this is 2021. And with all that we’ve gone through in recent years, and certainly in my lifetime, and with the awareness that has been created through television and internet and social media … and by the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve watched people being murdered — Black individuals being murdered on TV — I would have thought by now, in 2021, with that awareness, that there would be some understanding. But obviously, when I see things like this being done, that second step which is the understanding part, hasn’t reached it’s full potential yet.
I asked Paris what he thinks Houston sees as the downside in appointing a Black person to the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs and the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives.
“Well I’m not sure if he’s thought of the downside,” replied Paris. “I think that, with all due respect to the premier … him and those advising him, I’m curious as to who they are and what they look like. I wonder if any of them look like me.”
“And maybe the advice, and I don’t know this to be true, but maybe the counsel that he’s getting said, ‘Oh well, in a week this will blow over and life will go on as normal.’ I do not know that, but it would be interesting to hear what was being said at that table.”
I attempted to reach Minister Pat Dunn through his constituency office, through the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs, and through the Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage.
A representative from the Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage responded and said that Dunn is dealing with a family emergency and wouldn’t be available this week.
Tim Houston’s press secretary Catherine Klimek also responded on behalf of Dunn’s constituency office to relay the same message. Klimek did, however, invite me to submit questions through e-mail and she would do her best to get back to me.
We’ll update this story when we get responses to those questions.
* as originally published, this article misstated Munroe-Anderson’s position.