In 1864, Province House in Prince Edward Island played host to most of the Charlottetown Conference, where representatives from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI met to discuss a union that would make them less economically and politically dependent on the British government.

Similar to the initial agenda of the Charlottetown Conference, Black organizers and advocates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI met last Monday at the offices of the Black Cultural Society of Prince Edward Island — just two blocks from Province House — to discuss ways of strengthening Black community connections throughout Maritimes.

Tamara Steele, Director Black Cultural Society of PEI; David Woods, Artistic Director Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia, Thandiwe McCarthy and Gary Weekes, Board executives, New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance. Photo: Matthew Byard.

Tamara Steele, the executive director of the Black Cultural Society of PEI welcomed Thandiwe McCarthy and Gary Weekes, the president and vice president of the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance, as well as the artistic director for the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia (BANNS), David Woods, who initiated the meeting.

Woods is the curator of a Black art exhibit next door to Province House at the Confederation Centre for the Arts and was in town to speak and give a tour at the Centre’s opening night ceremony.

“The Secret Codes exhibition opening also served as a backdrop for the meeting of Black community arts organization leaders from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI,” Woods wrote in a BANNS Facebook post. “Representatives shared information on their organizations’ programs and activities and discussed possible regional projects for the future.”

In an interview with the Halifax Examiner, Steele said she’s known Woods since she worked at the Arts Centre.

“It was really serendipitous. I had free time and he was here and it worked out. And then when he said he had Thandiwe McCarthy and Gary Weekes with him, that was such a bonus because I had gotten to work a little bit with Thandiwe last year on a regional Black policy conference,” she said.

Thandiwe McCarthy and Gary Weekes, the President and Vice President of the New Brunswick Black Artists Alliance. Photo: Matthew Byard.

“And of course, I couldn’t say no because we’ve been trying to get together for so long, trying to connect for so long. I was really excited.”

Black Islanders’ numbers growing, but challenges remain

Tamara Steele is originally from Nova Scotia. She grew up in Cole Harbour and has family roots in East Preston and Upper Hammonds Plains. She moved to Charlottetown in 1999 to attend the University of PEI, where she graduated and has been living ever since.

Tamara Steele, Executive Director of the Black Cultural Society of Prince Edward Island. Photo: Matthew Byard.

Steele said she joined the society in 2019 when she and a group of people were brought in to help organize events and activities for Black History Month.

She said that since the society was founded in 2016, some of the founders had moved away while others had gotten busy with other projects.

“So at that time the board was really looking to re-energize the organization. The group they had brought in to organize those Black History Month events in 2019 … there was a lot of good energy, a lot of good chemistry there, so they asked if we would kind of take over the society, and we did. We got appointed as the new board, I got appointed as the president.”

Steele said PEI’s Black population has not only grown but has become more diverse since she first moved to the island. She said this was apparent during a Black Lives Matter event in 2020 — the largest gathering of Black people on the island she’d ever seen.

“We thought we really need to start thinking about how that community can be supported so that we can be thriving here and not just kind of being here,” she said.

“That prompted a growth in the society itself. So from there, I left the board and became the executive director as of January 2021. And here we are.”

Steele said the growth of PEI’s Black community since she first arrived has been significant, particularly in recent years.

“When I was new here … we were very few and far between. And what I understand now is that there were a few families living here in different parts of the island, but no families I would have seen because, you know, I would have been mostly confined to the university campus.”

She said her university became more diverse during her time in school and attributes much of PEI’s Black population growth to immigration and international students.

Steele said she’s been told immigration to Canada is easier through PEI. She said PEI’s colleges and university departments have strong recruitment departments that recruit heavily in Africa and the Caribbean.

“I know there’s a large Nigerian community at UPEI, there’s a large Bahamian community at Holland College,” she said.

Steele said, however, that despite strong recruitment efforts by the province’s government and universities, there remains a disconnect and that many Black people face systemic anti-Black racism on Prince Edward Island.

“There’s this ideation for let’s … diversify the population of PEI, but without considering what those diverse populations need to thrive when they get here,” she said.

She said many Black newcomers on the island face many unexpected barriers such as trying to gain employment, racism in housing, obtaining adequate health care, obtaining permanent residency, and haircare needs.

“I think the issue is that people arrive here for specific reasons – whether it’s for school or through a government program – and they’re trying to get into Canada for work … but then they get here and there’s really nothing for them,” Steel said,

“I mean, I’m not going to lie, I still go to Nova Scotia to get my hair done. My mom does it.”

Steele said that many of the board members, like herself, also come from away and can relate to many of the challenges people in PEI’s growing Black community say they face.

“All of us on the board and even the staff that I’m getting now, we’ve been here for however long and we see those challenges. We’ve experienced a lot of those challenges. And we’re hearing from the community that they’re experiencing those same challenges,” she said.

Steele said the Black Cultural Society of PEI has been developing a relationship with the government and helping to make them aware of systemic anti-Black racist issues.

“It’s little things and it’s happening slowly, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. But the awareness is there now, I think where it wasn’t there before.”

Creating Black Maritime connections

In reference to Monday’s meeting in the BANNS Facebook post, David Woods wrote:

Activity ideas included a theatre/folk arts festival; a literary anthology; photo essay of older Black houses and communities; creating united focus themes for Black History Month and Emancipation Day celebrations; and creating a Maritime Association of Black arts organizations.

David Woods, Artistic Director for the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia (BANNS). Photo: Matthew Byard

Steele told the Examiner she was encouraged by how the meeting turned out.

“I think the region has a lot of shared history when it comes to the Black communities and I think operating as separately as we do is disingenuous to that history.”

“I loved the idea of somehow making Emancipation Day a regional celebration. That idea and developing a regional theme for Black History Month, I think that would just really do wonders for uniting the region and having everyone come together on a similar plane,” she said.

“And I know the histories are individual enough on their own, but there is enough that’s shared there that I think through a united Black History Month theme or African Heritage Month theme, I think we can really do a better job of telling those stories, of each of our provinces, and widening the knowledge of that history of the region, within the region.”

David Woods, Thandiwe McCarthy, and Gary Weekes meet with Tamara Steele in a theatre at the offices of the Black Cultural Society of Prince Edward Island (March 28, 2022). Photo: Matthew Byard.

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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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