Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
When Shelley Fashan walked up to the door of the Canada Employment Office on Gottingen Street on March 27, 1996, she was part of a group that would make history in Canada.
Fashan, along with Rocky Jones, Joan Jones, Lynn Jones, and Carolann Wright, and many others, were at the employment office to stage an occupation to protest the planned closure of the employment centre. But the community decided to fight back. That office was more to the community than a place to find a job.
“They had taken the grocery store, they had taken the bank. They had taken everything off Gottingen Street,” Fashan said in a recent interview with the Halifax Examiner at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook. “The Canada Employment Centre wasn’t just an employment centre; it was kind of a hub where people used to go for all kinds of questions… anything from social insurance to birth certificates. All kinds of things they provided to the community.”
Fashan was assigned the role of being the first of the group to knock on the door to get in. Fashan remembers Joan Jones telling her that Tony Jackson, the manager at the employment centre, would be welcoming to her.
“I’m kind of friendly and sweet,” Fashan laughed. “I’m not really that, but people see me as warm and really non-threatening.”
Fashan’s entrance worked and the group ended up taking over the office for 133 days making it the longest running occupation of a federal government office in Canadian history.
Fashan still remembers those days well. The group sent out a press release every day and hosted strategy sessions. They slept on the office’s floor in sleeping bags. Supporters came by with meals and organized entertainment with puppet shows, reading circles, music, and parades.
“It was fabulous when I think about it, how it brought the community together,” Fashan said.
And it worked.
The community got to keep its employment office, although it moved to a new space at the YMCA down the street. It’s still there today.
That occupation was just one of many events in Fashan’s life that demonstrates how she fought for and brought the Black community of Nova Scotia together. And today, at 69, Fashan doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
‘I will never forget those things’
Fashan grew up in Cherry Brook and remembers the stories her relatives told about the racism they faced in Nova Scotia. Her grandfather, Alfred Grosse, told her that Black people had to get medical care from local veterinarians because they were refused treatment by medical doctors. Then there was the time Dr. Marie Hamilton, who would go on to be a respected educator who taught children in North Preston, Beechville, and Hammonds Plains, told Fashan she was applied to nursing school, but wasn’t accepted because she’s a Black woman.
Fashan also remembers an incident when she was about 10 years old out trick-or-treating on Halloween and a man said to her and her friends, “Oh, look at those darkies.”
“I thought, ‘what are darkies?’” Fashan said. “I will never forget those things because I was young and those were the stories that were being told. The unfairness of it all. That’s our legacy here in Nova Scotia and echoes still resonate in terms of our progress and our development.”
As a teenager, another event would affect Fashan and her activism.
In the 1968, the Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael, the key leader behind the Black Power movement, visited Halifax to help organize the Black United Front. Fashan attended the meetings at the library on Gottingen Street and was enthralled.
“I was a starry eyed teenager, really,” She said. “I was going to the meetings at the North Branch Library, hearing the stories, and just being supportive of what they were bringing, which was all about Black pride and collective work.”
“They brought a lot of energy and a lot of excitement. There were people of my mom’s age who were saying, ‘they’re just trouble,’ and then there were young people saying, ‘no, they’re telling us we need to be self-sufficient, independent, and who were are as people, not trying to be white people.’”
Fashan said those meetings made her feel validated, as she was already fighting the battles.
“Where I went to school, Black girls, we weren’t expected to do anything. I remember the counsellor saying to us, ‘Well, you should go to vocational [school]’ because there was no aspiration to be an academic,” she said. “That’s the system we were all involved in. Not much has changed.”
She had mentors and supporters in her community, though, especially the women. She lists them by name — Daisy, Ollie, Kaye, Jean, Muriel, Gwynnie — and calls them “auntie,” whether they were related or not.
“Everybody was an aunt,” she said. “I was surrounded by people who cared and loved me. Strong women, very, very strong women.”
‘I was a bit of a rabble rouser’
In high school, Fashan helped organize a group of female classmates to all wear jeans to school, which was against the dress code. As the group’s organizer, Fashan was suspended for two weeks, but not long into her suspension, the school reversed its decision.
“They said, ‘Oh, you can come back.’ And I said, ‘that’s okay, I’ll stay home,’” she said.
Fashan remembers when she and a white girl in her class always had the same grades, but on a particular test, both girls’ marks declined sharply. Fashan said the teacher told the white student she needed to talk with her parents because her grades were dropping. The teacher, meanwhile, said nothing to Fashan.
“I will never forget that,” she said. “It demonstrates how unimportant I was. I was a bit of a rabble rouser.”
In one of her English classes, Fashan asked the teacher to allow them to do a new project. So, Fashan lead a film production, something about the Middle Ages, although she can’t recall the particulars of the plot or her role.
“I was probably just telling everyone what to do,” she said.
She had her mentors in school, too, including Mr. Risvey, who taught his students economics, civics, and took them on field trips.
But she said she what she and her classmates learned about the Black community amounted to about “three lines” in history books. Fashan said she’d like to see more teachings on Black history in Nova Scotia’s schools.
“It needs to be a part of the curriculum,” Fashan said. “We built this city. When I go over to the Citadel and I don’t see any recognition of the Maroons. We are one of the founding communities and we need to be held up as that.”
‘Attitudes are so entrenched’
After high school, Fashan moved to Toronto, but returned home shortly afterward. It was then she met her husband, Raymond. They moved to the UK for two years, first to Cardiff, Wales, then onto Plymouth, England. During that time, Fashan had, Idris, the first of her three sons.
“I didn’t like it that much,” Fashan said of her time overseas. “I didn’t have any family or friends. Well, I had friends. I liked the people. The people were fabulous.”
Fashan worked for several years in different departments with the federal government where she said she was “treated very badly.”
“I used to have to deal with a lot of insults. I was called everything from the n-word to remarks about my hair,” Fashan said.
When she worked with the Canada Employment Centre, a coworker came into the office and said, “I worked like a n-word last night” about her own spring cleaning.
“I looked at her and said, ‘You people are never happy, you either work like an n-word or you are as lazy as one, now you tell me what you want.”
For a time, Fashan worked as a clerk with Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) on a program that inspected homes. And while it was beyond her job description, Fashan was often sent to inspect homes in the Prestons because the actual inspectors refused to go into the community.
“They were happy to see me,” Fashan said of the homeowners whose houses she’d inspect. “It’s not like that anymore.”
But Fashan always fought back.
“I struggled with those people. I filed grievances. I won one, I lost another. It was just so taxing,” Fashan said. “Attitudes are so entrenched.”
In 2016, she ran for Halifax regional council. A year later, she ran as the NDP candidate for the Preston-Chezzetcook-Eastern Shore seat. She recalled one of her volunteers on her campaign saying people would say she’d only care about the Prestons.
“I said, ‘well, that’s strange because I don’t live in the Prestons. I live in Lake Echo,'” Fashan said. “People’s attitudes are just so stuck.”
She said the world is a bit better and there have been positive changes. There are more Black Nova Scotians in universities and in jobs they were denied for years.
It’s easy to see what Joan Jones already knew about Fashan back in 1996 that made her the best person to knock the door at the Canada Employment Office. Fashan has bright smile, warm personality, sweet sense of humour, and a genuine kindness.
You can also see the fighter in her, too, and the passion she has for her community. The anger, the tears, and the struggle to find the reasons behind all the hate seem to simmer just below her surface. Telling the stories again brings back a lot of hurt.
“If I could understand it, if I could see some sense to it, but just based on the fact that I’m browner than you? That’s ridiculous. How you could create a society like that?” she said. “And taking the best part of what we have and then calling us down. There would be no creative music or dance or even stories if it wasn’t for my people and the Indigenous people. What we have to offer around humanity, the value in it, and the contributions. So, you can take this part and dismiss this part? That’s all white supremacy.”
‘Communities are dealing with the same kinds of issues’
The list of where Fashan dedicates her time, talent, and passion is long.
She currently serves on the property committee board with Akoma, a Black-led, Black-serving, registered charity in Preston that also runs, among many things, a cafe, a salon, a daycare, and low-income housing. Some of the Black-owned businesses are located in Kinney Place, the now restored building that was once the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
She’s the secretary on the board of directors of the community newspaper, Eastern Shore Cooperator.
She works part time as the director of engagement with the Health Association of African Canadians, which was started in 2000 to help address African Canadian health issues and the system inequities affecting health.
And she’s on the committee with the African Nova Scotian Road to Economic Prosperity, which is, according to its website, five-year economic development strategy that aims to address systemic issues and improve economic and quality of life outcomes for African Nova Scotians.”
Fashan said the group works on issues such education, employment, community boundaries, and community land trusts.
“Though it’s Halifax centred, what we realized is that these are issues in Black communities all around the province,” Fashan said. “Communities are dealing with the same kind of issues.”
Emerging Lens Film Festival
Fashan’s early skills in directing came back to her when she made the short documentary In Season, about Sarah Bundy, otherwise known as Aunt Sadie, who was born and raised on Riley Road in Cherry Brook. For 40 years, Bundy was a stalwart at local markets where she sold whatever was in season. Fashan said the documentary is a tribute to all the matriarchs in the community and took care of many children over the years. Through that story, Fashan learned how Black and Indigenous farmers were treated, and left to the last to board the ferry to market.
It was through that work that Fashan connected with Tara Taylor, who was the editor of In Season. And in 2011, the pair decided they wanted a platform where Black filmmakers could showcase their work and talent. So, they started the Emerging Lens Cultural Film Festival, which just wrapped up its 13th year with 100 submissions.
“The film industry is just the same as every other industry that has historically excluded us,” Fashan said. She said of the 450 members of IATSE Local 849, the union that represents motion picture technicians in the Maritimes, only seven are Black.
“At the same time, they’re not recognizing the harm, they’re not recognizing that legacy of racism going on and on and on.”
Since 2011, the festival has grown from a one-night event to four nights each April. This year’s event was the first festival since the COVID pandemic, and featured dozens of films from around the world. The festival also brings in other filmmakers to teach and offers workshops on how filmmakers can pitch their work.
“Our festival is a cultural festival, so the way we look at things, our principles and our values around that. We include everyone,” Fashan said. “The exception we make is if you’re European, your film has to be cultural.”
Fashan said Emerging Lens is a chance to connect filmmakers and other artists, many of whom continue to work together after the festival wraps up. Author and spoken-word artist Andre Fenton performed one of his works at the inaugural festival in 2011. He’s since connected with Cory Bowles and Fashan said the two are working on projects.
“I’m most proud of bringing people together and sharing those stories,” Fashan said. “We do a lot of networking and that creates more opportunities.”
Still, Fashan said she’d like to hire staff to run the festival since it’s grown so much over the years. Right now, it’s Tara Taylor, Victoria Snow, Kayla Borden, and Teisha Colley, and lots of volunteers who run the show.
She’s also working on another documentary, The Last Taboo, which is about intimate partner violence in the Black community. Fashan, along with Starr Downey, Nadine Paris, Denise Allen, Deanna Sparkes, and Tara Taylor, are part of a non-profit called The Descendants of African American EnSlaved Living in Nova Scotia. The group is producing the documentary with a grant from Standing Together, the provincial initiative to prevent domestic violence.
Fashan said the film is about 90% finished. She and her group have been working on it for a few years now, and there have been delays, including the COVID pandemic. The documentary will focus on dialogue among African Nova Scotian women and their experiences with gender-based violence, a topic that carries a lot of stigma in the community.
“Our communities are very tight knit, close knit. If there is violence, sexual assault with a relative, it’s often never, ever reported because it would bring shame,” Fashan said. “There’s all of these intricate relationships that we have. Plus, how we’re treated through the criminal justice system. All of these types of things that we never really get an opportunity to have a discussion about, a conversation about.”
But Fashan said the conversations may already be changing. She said a group of younger women who took part in the filming formed their own support network.
‘I was there for that, too’
Then there were the East Coast Music Awards in 1997.
Fashan went to Moncton, NB for the awards ceremony that year. Four the Moment, the quartet that included her friend Delvina Bernard, were performing.
Five artists were up for the award for hip-hop single of the year: Ashley MacIsaac, Hip Club Groove, Jamie Sparks, Karen Corbin, and Wichdoc JoRun. MacIsaac, a white performer of the five, won.
Not long after the award ceremony wrapped up, Fashan said a group got together at the library on Gottingen Street to form the African Nova Scotia Music Association to promote Black artists and talent. They also worked to get Fashan on the board of directors at ECMAs.
Two years later, in 1999, the ECMAs were held in St. John’s, NL. And Fashan, who was still on the ECMA board, headed to that province with a contingent of 33 performers, artists, and her team.
“We got more attention than the ECMAs,” Fashan said.
She said the ECMA then created a policy stating if you were involved with the board of directors of that association, you couldn’t also be connected with another association promoting musical talent.
“You want to talk about having a fight,” Fashan said. “I would come back from those board meetings and I would cry into Delvina’s arms about how bad it was. It wasn’t an easy thing and they didn’t want to create an African Nova Scotian artist of the year because they said that’s based on a race. So, I was there for that, too.”
‘When we come together, it’s just an amazing thing’
Somehow with all she’s doing and involved in, Fashan manages to put some fun into her schedule. She said she loves to sing and dance. She’s one of the founding members of the Nova Scotia Mass Choir and sang with the group for years, but had to give it up because she can no longer drive at night from her home in Lake Echo to the practices in Halifax.
Earlier this year she and a niece went on a trip to Mexico. They are already planning their next getaway. She spends time with her three sons, Idris, Colin, and Cory, and her grandchildren. The world, she said, it’s a little better for them, but there’s still work to do.
“It’s so systemic and so hard to see,” she said. “A lot of employment is done through networks, through people knowing each other. If you’re not part of that system, you’re not going to know.”
But what she really loves is being in her community, which she said extends all over the province. Over the years, Fashan has been one of the common threads that ties generations and networksin Nova Scotia’s Black community together. Asked what she loves about her community, Fashan said, “everything, even the fights, and even when we disagree.”
“I love it all. I get strength and inspiration from my community, I really do. And a lot of support. When we come together, it’s just an amazing thing.”