Wanda Thomas (not to be confused with Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard) said she had never heard of the African Nova Scotian flag. It wasn’t until her grandson had coloured a paper version of the flag as part of an activity through his school’s African Nova Scotian student support worker program when she said she first learned of it. She said she asked around and no one she knew had heard of it either.
“I’m thinking, how can somebody announce a flag on behalf of Black Nova Scotians, or African Nova Scotians, or people of African descent in Nova Scotia when my small circle of friends, and I’ve got a very collective group of friends, have never heard of this flag?” she said. “So where did the consultation take place? Where did the concept come from? Who said it was a good idea, bad idea?”
Eventually, she learned that the flag was unveiled at a ceremony at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherrybrook in February, during Nova Scotia’s African Heritage Month.
Thomas emailed Tony Ince, then in his former role of minister for the Office of Equity and Anti-Racism Initiatives, and Derek Mombourquette in his former role of minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. She raised concerns about her grandson being taught about the flag in a school setting where she, a senior, nor anyone she’d spoken to, had even heard of the flag.
She asked the ministers if their departments “endorse and promote this flag and if so; what process was filled to adopt this flag and what consultation process was held or conducted with the (African Nova Scotian) community, most particular who was consulted at the community level?”
On July 5, Marlene Ruck Simmonds, the executive director of African-Canadian services with the Education Department, responded on behalf of Mombourquette. She thanked Thomas for the correspondence and wrote:
The African Nova Scotian Flag was officially unveiled by the Africentric Learning Institute at the Black Cultural Centre on Flag Day February 15, 2021 during Nova Scotia’s African Heritage Month as a symbol that honours and represents the “past, present and future”,…many generations and the “cultural pride” of people of African ancestry.
The flag represents the agency of African Nova Scotians and their contributions to Nova Scotia’s rich cultural landscape.
She provided a YouTube link to the unveiling ceremony along with contact information to the Africentric Learning Institute (ALI), which helped promote and unveil the flag along with the creator of the flag, Wendie L. Wilson, and encouraged Thomas to reach out to them for more information on the consultation process.
That wasn’t good enough for Thomas. Her concern wasn’t with ALI, but rather about the flag. The question, she said, was whether the flag was being incorporated into the Nova Scotia school curriculum.
Wayn Hamilton, the executive director of African Nova Scotian Affairs, responded:
The Government of Nova Scotia has not formally recognized the flag being promoted by the Afrocentric Learning Institute (ALI) as the flag for African Nova Scotians.
The launch referenced was to support the organization on the public display of a flag designed for use by their organization.
We have encouraged ALI to further engage with the various African Nova Scotian communities should they want their flag to be adopted more broadly.
If you wish to share your thoughts with ALI, we encourage you to contact them directly.
He provided Thomas contact information for ALI co-chairs Harvi Millar and Karen Hudson, as well as Wilson, the flag’s creator.
Back in time
When the flag was first unveiled in February, a CBC report referred to the flag as “official.” The article’s headline read: ‘New official African Nova Scotian flag looking to connect past, present and future’.
That day, the article was posted on a public social media platform for the Black Educators Association (BEA). In the comments, there were questions and discussions amongst African Nova Scotians about the flag’s inception. (Disclosure: I was part of those discussions — as a student, months prior to being hired by The Halifax Examiner).
While some supported the flag, others expressed similar thoughts to that of Thomas, months later when she too learned of the flag.
African Nova Scotian artist and poet, David Woods, who co-founded Halifax’s first official Black History Month wrote:
Unfortunately this flag was never publicly vetted. Everyday African Nova Scotians had little or no say in the decision that it would become the official representation of their community.
E.L. Cooke-Sumbu wrote:
I don’t believe this should be raised representing African Nova Scotian community until WE feel we have a vested interest.. my first time seeing it. As closely connected as I feel to ANSA Department…they missed the mark on this.
BEA president, Andrea Marsman, who posted the article made several responses in defense of the flag and its inception, writing, in part:
Wendie Wilson is a Black Educator, author, artist, and community activist who went to great lengths to provide us with dignified representation, consulted with community partners and organizations that have long represented Black communities across the province and produced something beautiful. We have been here for hundreds of years, when someone invests their time, creativity, talent, and passion into something she feels uplifts and represents the community suddenly we have a vested interest. Wendie Wilson, I think it is beautiful and your detailed explanation entirely hits the mark for me.
I was actually consulted as the President of BEA along with our membership three years ago along with the Council on African Canadian Education, which has Board members from the Black Cultural Centre DBDLI. BEA AUBA and members at large that represent regions across the province, all volunteers who had to apply to be on the council as well as the office of African Nova Scotian Affairs and the ALI. And again it was in the media (and) all over social media, if someone (had) an issue with the process they had plenty of time to make their case. I’m just curious what the process should have been?”
In direct response to the latter comment, Pastor Lennett Anderson of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hammonds Plains wrote:
Andrea Marsman personally, I love the flag! It is simply beautiful. But, as the past moderator of the AUBA (the oldest black provincial organization in NS), I know this matter did not come before our core executive for consultation with our member churches.
Emancipation Day and the Macdonald Bridge
After receiving responses from Marlene Ruck Simmonds and Wayn Hamilton on behalf of Derek Mombourquette and Tony Ince, Thomas said she felt she still didn’t have the answers she was looking for.
“It still didn’t sit well with me, it still didn’t answer my question. The more I talked to people, the more people did not hear about this flag, the same kind of comments kept coming up: ‘Well, who decided this? Well, what consultation took place?’”
Thomas said the icing on the cake for her was when she was driving across the Macdonald Bridge and saw a supersized version of the flag hanging in the middle of the bridge ahead of the first federally recognized Emancipation Day.
“And my friend, who is white, said ‘Oh, that’s the Black Nova Scotian flag!’ And I said ‘The Black Nova Scotian flag?’ And she proceeded to explain to me what the Black Nova Scotian flag was,” she said. “And what it was, it was speaking points, basically from, I guess, the PR stuff that was generated from the group that lobbied for this flag. It was at that time I said enough is enough. This is just absolutely ludicrous.”
Thomas said what further didn’t sit well with her was what she describes as the publicity that went along with the marketing and sales of the flag saying that purchasing the flag was supporting education in the African Nova Scotian community.
“And I’m thinking, there’s Emancipation Day, first time it’s being recognized in Canada, and you’re dovetailing the selling of this flag with Emancipation, which is gonna be really confusing because the Pan African flag is the one that’s recognized around the world. So, it was all those kinds of things that were all coming together.”
From there, Thomas’ friend and Black community advocate, Lynn Jones, helped circulate a petition that Thomas released calling for “a halt to the adoption of the flag by government offices, educational institutions, other organizations and individuals.”
ALI co-chair Dr. Harvi Millar, and ALI board member and co-founder Delvina Bernard spoke to the Examiner along with Black educator Wendie L. Wilson who created and designed the flag.
“It is unfortunate that perhaps we read the community wrong, in the sense that not in a million years did I ever predict that people would be upset to receive this flag,” said Bernard.
“We (Black people) know how to sign petitions. And the fact that only 77 people did … and the fact that they had to bolster support by asking non-African Nova Scotians to sign, still only got 77, to me, I almost think journalistically, that this isn’t even a story that is ethical to cover.”
Though we did cover it, for nearly two and a half hours, via Zoom. Millar and Bernard expressed frustration surrounding the petition. They said there are inaccuracies among various claims and resolutions in the petition; a misguided use and understanding of the term “consult” or “consultations;” and tensions behind the scenes with other people they feel were also involved in creating the petition.
I tried to focus and redirect my questions back to the nature of the efforts to inform the Black community of the flag up until its unveiling; whether CBC may have inadvertently caused confusion by using the term “official” in its description of the flag; specific concerns expressed to me by Wanda Thomas; and the online comment, in February, by Lennett Anderson.
For her part, Wendy Wilson said she has little regret.
“I’m a citizen. And I’m a member of the African Nova Scotian community and so has my family been for generations. And I created this flag because I saw a need, and if there was another flag out there I probably would have defaulted to that, but there wasn’t one that described and represented us as a very unique cultural group. So I created it,” she said.
Wilson said she then went to former Africa Nova Scotian Affairs Minister, Tony Ince. “And he told me that I needed to contact (a) community group,” she said. “And so he had mentioned the Black Cultural Centre, and he mentioned some other groups.”
Wilson said she reached out to the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute who took it to their board of directors who agreed to support the flag. She said she made a presentation for the BEA at its annual general meeting and that they agreed in the meeting to support it. She said that she had what amounted to a three-year conversation with Wayn Hamilton at African Nova Scotian Affairs “about ‘How do you even do this? How do you even put a flag out there? There’s no path, there’s no roadmap to doing this.’”
“Obviously the Black Cultural Centre was one of the groups that — I don’t know if they went to the board or not but they definitely supported the program,” she said.
“I wrote an article in The Coast magazine in 2012 that got a lot of coverage and people keep going back to it, and it talked very clearly about the flag, and the flag meaning, and the lack or void of a flag.”
“I did my consultation as a private citizen by going to African Nova Scotian Affairs, going to BEA, going to DBDLI, going to ALI, going to community groups that I was familiar with. Now hindsight for me, would I have like to have been able to have the opportunity to consult a lot more groups? Yes,” she said. “Yes, I would have like to have been able to have the opportunity. I’m one person, I did what I thought was reasonable.”
In his letter to Wanda Thomas, Wayn Hamilton said that the province hadn’t “formally recognized” the flag — as it did, for instance, with Emancipation Day following its formal recognition by the Canadian government this past spring.
Though Mayor Mike Savage and the Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs were in attendance at the unveiling, Bernard and Millar said their aim is not to have the flag formally recognized, but rather to bolster support for its embrace among Black/African Nova Scotians.
“The question is do you give people the narrative ahead of the launch, or do you launch and give people the narrative at the same time? Which is what we did,” said Millar. “It wasn’t a situation where we felt we needed permission because it’s art being given as a gift.”
“Community development happens in many ways,” said Bernard. “It happens through formal organizations, informal organizations, influential people, influencers, leaders, individuals, groups — and the key thing at the end is: were you doing this for the good of the community, and did you cause any harm? No harm. No harm have we caused by having a flag, and it was for the good of the community.”
“There’s no backup flag, there’s no default flag, and so I saw a void, I covered it,” said Wilson. “There’s some people in the community, a certain demographic of people in the community — we know who they are, we knew who they were from the beginning — that are, I guess, upset because they weren’t consulted.”
Though on the issue of community engagement, or consultations, prior to the flag’s unveiling, Bernard acknowledges that, in hindsight, steps may have been missed.
“The official answer from ALI is that had we had known that there would be, you know, people — small number as it is — that felt that way, grieved, we would have done it differently,” she said.
“ALI and all the organizations like us who … all the members are 40 to 45 and over — in our case, definitely 45 and over — we need to do a much better job.”
“Wendie consulted with her educational colleagues … and we sent it out to people … but who really put this out on Instagram? Who really put this out on Tik Tok? Who really put this out on the platforms that people under 30 and 40 could see? We did not.”
Millar and Bernard contend that both Wilson and the vendors selling the flag agreed to donate their proceeds to ALI to support Africentric youth learning programs and that no one is profiting off the flag.